Planet Care

48: Bioremediation for oil spill clean ups


Oil spills spread toxins throughout marine and shore ecosystems, killing and causing genetic defects in flora and fauna.


Bioremediation  –  the use of microorganisms, plants, or microbial or plant enzymes to detoxify pollutants into non-toxic substances.

Since the iconic 1969 oil well blowout in Santa Barbara, California, there have been at least 44 oil spills, each over 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons), affecting U.S. waters. On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in Alaska, spilling 40.9 million litres (11 million gallons) of crude oil over 1,000 miles (km of shoreline.

It is thought to be one of the worst man made environmental disasters ever. But three years later the worst oil spill in history, the Gulf War oil spill spewed an estimated 8 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf after Iraqi forces opened valves of oil wells and pipelines as they retreated from Kuwait in 1991.

The oil slick reached a maximum size of 101 miles by 42 miles and was five inches thick. is a process used to treat contaminated media, including water, soil and subsurface material, by altering environmental conditions to stimulate growth of microorganisms and degrade the target pollutants.

The bioremediation breakthrough came in 1972 when George M Robinson, assistant county petroleum engineer for Santa Maria, California successfully used microbes to clean out the fuel tanks on the RMS Queen Mary, the start of implementing bioremediation towards contamination sites.

This was improved by Ananda Chakrabarty, an Indian American microbiologist, who carried out performed bacterial genetics to mate the pollutant-eating bacteria into a single “super-bug” Alcanivorax borkumensis, that would eat multiple components of oil.

Following the Exxon Valdez spill, cleanup by physical methods such as skimming the water and spraying the rocky shore with detergents was used first, and the result dispersed about two-thirds of the oil. Then the genetically engineered bacteria and other bacterial strains were added to consume the remaining oil.

Because bioremediation became a prototype in the almost never-ending oil spill cleanup sites since, it has involved many interactions within scientific researchers all over the world.

Provided that proper nutrients are present, an oil spill that was estimated to be cleaned by natural conditions in 5-10 years could be cleaned in 2-5 years with the use of bioremediation.

Daniel J. Kevles, “Ananda Chakrabarty Wins a Patent: Biotechnology, law, and Society, 1972-1980”, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1994), pp. 111-135

Discover solution 49: Look! No microplastics!

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