Years ago there was a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred to as the BP oil spill, oil leak, or oil disaster; the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; and the Macondo blowout) is an industrial disaster that began on April 20, 2010. … In July 2015, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in United States history.
… On 15 April 2014, BP claimed that cleanup along the coast was substantially complete, but the United States Coast Guard responded by stating that a lot of work remained. …
To date BP’s cost for the clean-up, environmental and economic damages and penalties has reached $54 billion. (Wikipedia)
One idea from April 30, 2010, was to use microbes to clean up the oil.
At this point it’s unclear how much of an environmental threat oil spreading from the BP spill will cause, but the federal government is mobilizing thousands of workers to prepare for the worst. They have a potential ally: microbes that have evolved an ability to break down oil that seeps from the ocean bottom. It gets devoured by a variety of bacteria, which eat it by chemically transforming its compounds into useful cellular constituents. “If it wasn’t for the natural ability of bacteria to eat oil we would all be knee-deep in the stuff,” says bioremediation expert Ken Lee of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, Canada.
So could bugs help cleanse the gulf? A number of companies have tried to create bacteria that could break down oil on demand, but Lee and colleague Albert Venosa of the Environmental Protection Agency say that experiments have shown that novel bacteria, even if they show promise in the lab, cannot compete with bacteria already living on beaches and marshes. Experiments have shown that adding nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the beaches can speed up the ability of natural bacteria to break down oil. “What would’ve taken 5 or 6 years to accomplish can occur in a single summer,” says Lee.
While adding such fertilizers has worked in small scale coastal experiments in which oil was purposefully spread on wetlands, experts don’t know of examples from an actual spill. The challenge with wetland marshes is that the toxicity of the oil can kill plants before the microbes have a chance to get to work on the oil. “If that happens, you can lose the whole marsh,” Lee says. …
Here we are in the year 2019, it work? How did the microbes do at cleaning up the oil? Quite well, they ate a lot!
Like cars, some microbes use oil as fuel. Such microorganisms are a big reason why BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not far worse.
“The microbes did a spectacular job of eating a lot of the natural gas,” says biogeochemist Chris Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The relatively small hydrocarbon molecules in natural gas are the easiest for microorganisms to eat. “The rate and capacity is a mind-boggling testament to microbes,” he adds.
As Reddy suggests, the microbes got help from the nature of the oil spilled—so-called Louisiana light, sweet crude mixed with natural gas, as opposed to bitumen or other heavy, gunky oils. “It’s a whole lot easier to degrade,” says Christopher D’Elia, a biologist at Louisiana State University and dean of the School of the Coast and Environment. “The bacteria had something that was more tractable.”
More than 150 different molecules make up the toxic stew of hydrocarbons that spewed from BP’s Macondo well on the Gulf of Mexico seafloor. The microbes chewed through the smaller, dispersed hydrocarbons (and the dispersants themselves) relatively quickly, helped by the fact that these molecules can dissolve in water. “I give them a 7 out of 10,” says biogeochemist David Valentine of the University of California, Santa Barbara, of the microbes’ performance eating the oil spill.
(Read more SciAm)
Nevertheless, they left a lot to be cleaned up in other ways.
… even the ravenous microbes could not clean it all—and much of what they consumed (natural gas components like methane, ethane, butane, propane and pentane) does not legally count as part of the oil spill. Plus, plenty of tarlike hydrocarbons—which are far too big for microbes to chew up—spilled, too.
… Even the smaller molecules cannot be consumed if there are not enough nutrients in the water as well, like nitrogen or phosphorus. “Nutrients regulated biodegradation,” Joye says. “That could be why so much oil sedimented out, they degraded as much as they could.” In fact, the microbes may have been hampered not only by limited nutrients because the microbial population boom may have meant an accompanying boom in their predators or in the various viruses that can infect these spill-eaters. Moreover, one of the biggest requirements for these microbes to eat hydrocarbons—oxygen—is not present at all in the sediments of the deep or the muck of Louisiana marshes. That is why oil from the Macondo well persists in those places five years later—and perhaps for eons to come. (Source)
I have daydreams of aliens visiting the Earth and cleaning it up in one big “whoosh,” removing all of the man-made damage from the beginning of the industrial revolution. We probably have to become our own miracle, however. The point of this article is that it will take more than one tool, and we have to be a lot more careful. Killing our oceans will not bode well for the human race.
Luckily there are many ways we can help. One I read recently was that just playing back the sounds of shrimp and other fish from loudspeakers hidden in dead corals attracted fish to those corals and helped to start to rebuild them. Let’s keep working on new ways to bring back the huge web of life on earth which we are only beginning as a species to realize that we need.