From pipelines to tankers, oil spills and their impact on the environment are a source of concern. These disasters occur on a regular basis, leading to messy decontamination challenges that require massive investments of time and resources. But however widespread and serious the damage may be, the solution could be microscopic — Alcanivorax borkumensis — a bacterium that feeds on hydrocarbons. Professor Satinder Kaur Brar and her team at INRS have conducted laboratory tests that show the effectiveness of enzymes produced by the bacterium in degrading petroleum products in soil and water. Their results offer hope for a simple, effective, and eco-friendly method of decontaminating water and soil at oil sites.
In recent years, researchers have sequenced the genomes of thousands of bacteria from various sources. Research associate Dr.Tarek Rouissi poured over “technical data sheets” for many bacterial strains with the aim of finding the perfect candidate for a dirty job: cleaning up oil spills. He focused on the enzymes they produce and the conditions in which they evolve.
A. borkumensis, a non-pathogenic marine bacterium piqued his curiosity. The microorganism’s genome contains the codes of a number of interesting enzymes and it is classified as “hydrocarbonoclastic” — i.e., as a bacterium that uses hydrocarbons as a source of energy. A. borkumensis is present in all oceans and drifts with the current, multiplying rapidly in areas where the concentration of oil compounds is high, which partly explains the natural degradation observed after some spills. But its remedial potential had not been assessed.