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

At International AIDS Conference One Goal, Many Paths

The 12,000 delegates attending 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne have vastly different visions about how to eradicate disease More

Disasters May Doom Malaysia’s Flag Carrier

Even before loss of two jets loaded with passengers on international flights, company had been operating in red for three years, accumulating deficit of $1.3 billion More

Afghan Presidential Vote Audit Continues Despite Glitches

Process has been marred by walkouts by representatives of two competing candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Agei
X
Elizabeth Lee
July 20, 2014 2:36 AM
Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Video

Video Diplomatic Crisis Grows Over MH17 Plane Crash

The Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine is drawing reaction from leaders around the world. With suspicions growing that a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft, there are increasing tensions in the international community over who is to blame. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Undocumented Immigrants Face Perilous Journey to US, No Guarantees

Every day, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central America attempt the arduous journey through Mexico and turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol -- with the hope that they will not be turned away. But the dangers they face along the way are many, and as Ramon Taylor reports from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, their fate rests on more than just the reception they get at the US border.
Video

Video Scientists Create Blackest Material Ever

Of all the black things in the universe only the infamous "black holes" are so black that not even a tiny amount of light can bounce back. But scientists have managed to create material almost as black, and it has enormous potential use. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Fog Collector Transforming Maasai Water Harvesting in Kenya

The Maasai people of Kenya are known for their cattle-herding, nomadic lifestyle. But it's an existence that depends on access to adequate water for their herds and flocks. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA, on a "fog collector."

AppleAndroid