News / Science & Technology

Microbes Could Help Clean Up Oil Spills

FILE - In this June 26, 2010 file photo, oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen floating on the surface of the water in Bay Jimmy in Plaquemines Parish, La.
FILE - In this June 26, 2010 file photo, oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen floating on the surface of the water in Bay Jimmy in Plaquemines Parish, La.
Rosanne Skirble
New research finds that a tiny microbe may play a big role in cleaning up oil spills and natural gas leaks.
 
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico was the largest marine disaster in U.S. history, killing 11 people and spewing nearly five million barrels of oil into the water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some 14,000 spills are reported each year in the United States where oil and gas flow through a network of pipelines and are carried by barge, rail, and truck.
 
Microbe feeds on natural gas
Scientists have identified some 100 microbes that feed on methane, a byproduct of natural gas. Methane is also a potent climate-changing gas that warms the atmosphere. Writing in the journal Nature, environmental microbiologist Colin Murrell and colleagues at the University of East Anglia in England take a closer look at the genetic makeup of a single bacteria strain called Methylocella silvestris
 
The microbe is found in peat, tundra and forest soils in northern Europe. It was also detected in the Deepwater Horizon spill. Murrell says lab-based experiments found that it has a healthy appetite for components in natural gas. 
 
“We tested for growth on propane and sure enough it grows very happily on propane as well as methane,” Murrell said. “This is the uniqueness of the work that we’ve got one organism that seems to be able to acquire the ability to grow on these different gases together.” 
 
Study looks for what triggers appetite
But growth in a controlled laboratory experiment is far different from what happens in the natural environment, which is why researchers want to understand how the microbes work and what enzymes and what genes are being used by that bacterium to grow on either methane or propone.
 
"Then we can start to build up a picture of whether they are going to be useful in a sort of commercial context in terms of cleanup of oil spills or cleanup of a whole variety of different compounds,” Murrell said.
 
Murrell wants to identify other microbes in the environment that work in similar ways and says high-tech tools are available to do the job.
 
“We have specific gene and molecular probes that we can now use to go back and interrogate environmental samples to see if these organisms are present there in the first place,” he said.
 
Science helps decision-makers clean air
Murrell said the findings can help inform decision-makers on the potential advantage microbes offer for remediation.  “In terms of cleanup of the environment or in context of different organisms making useful chemicals in a biologically clean way rather than using a lot of hazardous chemicals.”
 
Molecule for molecule, Murrell says, the effect of methane on global warming is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a span of 100 years.  He added, 'It is important, to understand how it can be removed naturally in the environment before it is released into the atmosphere.

You May Like

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More