MadSci Network: Microbiology

Re: What is the name of the bacteria that cleans up oil spills?

Date: Sat Apr 1 21:41:33 2000
Posted By: Michael Benedik, Faculty Biology and Biochemistry, University of Houston
Area of science: Microbiology
ID: 954130556.Mi

One reason you may be having trouble finding it, is that there is no one 

Let us look at the problem from a historical context. The original strain 
that was constructed in the late '70s to early '80s which was sometimes 
called a superbug was a strain of Pseudomonas, in fact it was Pseudomonas 
putida. Those researchers transferred a series of plasmids from different 
natural isolates into one strain so that it had the capacity to degrade 
long chain hydrocarbons, the stuff of oil. Although it was great 
publicity, this strain didn't really prove all that useful. It worked fine 
in the lab, but not in the wild.

Since that time people have identified many different bacteria that can 
degrade components of oil. Certainly many Pseudomonads can, as well as 
species of Rhodococcus and a variety of other strains as well.

However these days they usually don't employ any one single strain, but 
rather rely on what is called a consortium, or a mixture of different 
bacteria. Each bacteria is best suited for degrading one or a few things, 
but in combination they work most effectively to clean up an oil spill. 

Often times commercial firms sell these bacterial mixtures which they 
isolated from the wild, and don't always even know all the different 
bacteria that is in the mixture. 

Therefore, there is no single bacterial species that we can say is the one 
that eats oil. There are many that can do it, but combinations of them are 
what work best.

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