The horrible disaster in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion and sinking of the BP oil platform is all over the news. Devastation to the landscape and wildlife all along the Gulf Coast is sure to be a topic of discussion for months and years to come. Lawsuits will be in the headlines, and government finger-pointing is going to part of coming elections. How could such a thing happen? How can such pervasive damage be repaired?
News videos for the past two weeks have shown use of booms, human hair, and chemical dispersants to try to minimize the amount of oil reaching shore. However, little has been said about the use of microbes to help digest the oil and remove it from the water and shoreline. One amazing fact about microbes is that when it comes to the versatility of their metabolism and their physiological capabilities, there are few organic chemicals that one or another critter can’t break down. Oil included. For example, the Exxon Valdez mess was cleaned up in part using oil-eating bacteria.
You might say – “Getting rid of oil coating the shoreline and contaminating the environment? There’s an app for that!”
Both of McMurry’s microbiologists, Drs. Tom Benoit and Gary Wilson, have experience in the use of microbes to remove oil and other hydrocarbons from contaminated soil and water. Benoit has extensive involvement in reducing hydrocarbon contaminants from water. In fact, he helped design a facility for the City of Nacogdoches (TX) that removes such pollutants from wastewater entering its sewage treatment facility. It uses microbes to destroy harmful chemicals that would choke the sewage treatment plant and slow return of treated wastewater to the environment. Wilson worked with a local electricity provider to help reduce the hydrocarbon counts in contaminated soil by more than 90% to significantly reduce the cost of disposal. In both instances, encouraging the growth of harmless microbes that devour oil and other organic compounds in the water and soil helped protect the environment. Chances are, students in BIMS courses this fall will find themselves doing research to try to maximize the effectiveness of similar organisms in eliminating crude oil-based pollution.
You may not be able to download the magic microbes as an app for your iPhone, but microbiology provides an answer to some of life’s trickiest problems.