Oil-Eating Microbes

Most people probably don’t know that there are naturally-occurring microbes that make their living by eating naturally-occurring hydrocarbons (hydrocarbons are organic compounds that consist entirely of hydrogen and carbon, and that are found in crude oil). The existence of such microbes are good news, in the context of a major oil spill like the one that recently contaminated the Gulf Coast.

By David Biello, for Scientific American: How Fast Can Microbes Clean Up the Gulf Oil Spill?

These are boom times for oil-eating microbes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to BP’s Deepwater Horizon accident that has added some 600 million liters of hydrocarbons to those waters. And now research published online in Science on August 24 shows that an array of new and unclassified oil-eating bacteria are feasting on the newly rich resource of hydrocarbons.

Interestingly, the story makes little mention of biotechnology — basically none at all, except to note that the scientists currently studying the microbes munching away at the Gulf Coast spill are from the Energy Biosciences Institute. The omission is interesting, given that a bunch of work has been done on genetically engineering microbes to boost their oil-eating powers.

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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in environment, genes, industrial biotechnology, risk. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Oil-Eating Microbes

  1. David Biello says:

    The only reason I didn’t mention biotech in this story… is because I covered that angle in some depth in a previous story on microbes and the Gulf:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-microbes-clean-up-oil-spills

    To sum up: biotech has failed, in the case of hydrocarbon-eaters, to improve upon nature. That’s not to disparage biotech’s successes in coaxing new hydrocarbons out of nature:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=bacteria-transformed-into-biofuel-refineries

    • David:

      Thanks so much for pointing to the other stories. Very helpful.
      And just to be clear, when I pointed to the lack of mention of biotech, it was more out of curiosity than criticism. So, thanks for filling us in!

      Chris.

  2. Chris Roland says:

    natural occurring my ass… didn’t BP oil company disperse this biological stuff into the gulf themselves.. look at the old news footage of them admitting about it.

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