Oil spills can destroy the biodiversity of a region and can have an indelible negative impact on the environment. Since the 1970s the average number of oil spills recorded at 20 spills per year has significantly reduced in the recent past. In the decade from 2010 to 2019, the average spill recorded in a year was 1.8 (Sönnichsen, 2022). But the problem of clearing the oil from these spills regardless of the extent of damage is an arduous task. One of the solutions by way of scientific research is the discovery of oil-eating bacteria. Ever since its discovery, several initiatives have been taken to use it as a tool to clean water bodies polluted with oil-based substances like petrol and diesel.
Oil-eating bacteria belong to several families including Marinobacter, Oceanospiralles, Pseudomonas, and Alkanivorax, that can consume compounds of petroleum (Thrift-Viveros, 2015). There are close to 7 species of bacteria that can eat petroleum-based products as part of their diet.
The Pseudomonas bacteria were genetically engineered by Prof. Anand Mohan Chakravarthy in 1971 which received tremendous attention worldwide owing to the number of oil spills that were prevalent during the period. In the mid-1990s, other bacteria like Alcanivorax and Marinobacter were isolated.
These oil-eating bacteria have a large potential to tackle oil spills across the world since oil has almost become a part and parcel of the economic functions of a society. Even if there comes a time in the future of electric vehicles and less fossil fuel-dependent energy resources, some sections of the societal functions will be dependent on oil which would need to be transported. This would further also leave room for oil leaks to occur by external forces beyond the control of human actions for which these oil-eating bacteria will come to the rescue.
How does the bacteria’s diet work?
Oil-eating bacteria are present as communities across several regions including the Persian Gulf and Arctic conditions of Alaska. Such bacteria have the capacity to degrade hydrocarbons from where they derive their ability to eat oil (Verran, 2020). These bacteria are adapted to the climatic conditions of that region and the more adapted they are to the natural environment, the better their capacity to eat oil quickly. In addition to the climate, the amount of oxygen and nutrients in the water, temperature of the water, the surface area of the oil, and the type of oil impact the oil-eating capacity of the bacteria. For insurance, some bacteria may be in a position to consume oil more quickly from water during the summers as compared to winters and they can eat light petroleum products like gasoline and diesel better as compared to heavy petroleum products like crude oil and fuel.
India is not new to oil spills and has been a victim of several such spills even in the recent past. The most recent of the incidents is the Ennore oil spill in 2017 along the coast of Chennai wherein 60 tonnes of oil (Ennore Oil Spill: What Happened? 2017). The impact was felt across several ports. Dead turtles washed up on the shore as a result of the leak. Though efforts were taken to clear the same, oil-eating bacteria could have definitely enhanced the clean-up process. The argument that efforts should be taken to prevent them is necessary, but that does not solve the oil leaks that have already occurred. It is for this reason that we need oil-eating bacteria.
Ennore oil spill: What happened? (2017, November 9). The Hindu. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/ennore-oil-spill-what-is-happening/article20044550.ece
Sönnichsen, N. (2022, February 9). Global average oil spills per decade 2021. Statista. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/671539/average-number-of-oil-spills-per-decade/
Thrift-Viveros, D. (2015, June 5). Who Thinks Crude Oil Is Delicious? These Ocean Microbes Do. NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/who-thinks-crude-oil-delicious-these-ocean-microbes-do.html
Verran, J. (2020, February 25). Can oil-eating bacteria clean up our seas? Microbiology Society. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://microbiologysociety.org/news/society-news/can-oil-eating-bacteria-clean-up-our-seas.html