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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Smallest Clean Up Crew

Air Date: Week of

The search is on for the best way to clean up oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Some companies want to release trillions of "super bacteria" into Gulf waters to eat the oil at a rapid pace. University of Louisville microbiologist and oil spill remediation expert Ronald Atlas talks with host Jeff Young about how likely this strategy is to succeed.


YOUNG: Well, a number of entrepreneurs say they have an answer for the oil in the Gulf: seed the ocean with trillions of ravenous “super bacteria” that eat hydrocarbons. These companies are pitching their lab-tested superbugs all around the Gulf coast—one even testified before congress. But a leading expert in bioremediation is deeply skeptical. Microbiologist Ronald Atlas, at the University of Louisville, pioneered the use of microorganisms and their enzymes to clean up oil spills. Professor Atlas says, unfortunately, there’s no quick fix.

ATLAS: There have been decades of looking for a super bug; there have been genetically engineered and patented oil-degrading bacteria. You can do it in the laboratory but when you come to the real world, it fails.

YOUNG: And the difference between the lab and field tests, why do you see such different results between those two experiences?

ATLAS: In the field, as soon as the oil comes out of the well, it’s being colonized by indigenous or native bacteria. So that if you’re trying to add a foreign bacterium, you not only have to worry about whether it can degrade the oil, but can it displace and get rid of the organisms that are already colonizing all over the oil droplets?

YOUNG: Now, you speak with a great deal of authority on this issue because you’ve worked on a lot of spills—how many spills have you worked on?

ATLAS: Oh quite a number. I’ve worked on the Ixtoc 1 well blowout, which until now was the largest in the Gulf region, the Exxon Valdez, the Amico Cadiz, the Kuwait oil spill, smaller spills in the jungles of the Amazon in Ecuador.

YOUNG: When you were working on these earlier spills, say the Valdez spill, did you get these sales pitches from companies saying, ‘here, use my superbug and we can clean this up for you?’

ATLAS: Yes. One of the jobs that I had for Exxon and the US EPA was to sit at a desk and have one sales person after another come in and throw things at me. Everything from orange peels and lemon peels, which, supposedly were bio-remediation agents because you couldn’t smell the oil when you threw them on, to endless bacterial sales pitches and yes it reached Congress and the White House at that point and I had to go into Washington and defend the science against the political onslaught of the bug salespeople. It’s absolute déjà vu.

YOUNG: Well, what is going on with the bacteria in the Gulf with the oil, what do you think is going on now?

ATLAS: Well, clearly there are bacteria in the Gulf that are able to degrade oil, and they are colonizing the oil droplets as it comes out of the well and beginning to grow. And it’s in the area of the Gulf, where this spill is occurring, there are 63 natural seeps, there’s 20 million gallons a year of oil that naturally enter this region of the Gulf, and, for bacteria, that’s a wonderful food source. They don’t degrade the oil instantly, it’s a slow process, taking weeks, months, even years for some of the different compounds in the oil to go away. But, the bacteria that naturally occur there are able to degrade the oil and eventually they’ll get rid of most of the oil components.

YOUNG: So, what should we be doing then?

ATLAS: I think right now we try to continually clean up the oil by physical containment and removal. When that fails, we’re going to look at that natural bacterial weathering process and we’re going to ask the question, can we speed it up by adding a nitrogen and phosphorous containing fertilizer, much like what you do in your garden.

YOUNG: When you talk about adding nutrients to this part of the Gulf, don’t they already have too many nutrients? That’s what causes that low oxygen dead zone in the Gulf. Can you add nutrients, fertilize, without making that lack of oxygen worse?

ATLAS: Yes, most of the bacteria that rapidly degrade oil do consume oxygen, and, what we saw in Exxon Valdez was a depletion of about 30% when very rapid degradation occurs. But they’ve not brought it down to a dead zone that would kill fish, so we see a depression, but as long as the water is flowing, we don’t see a total elimination of oxygen.

YOUNG: And, how much benefit can we expect from this approach, how much good might this do us?

ATLAS: In the Exxon Valdez spill case, which was the largest use of bio-remediation ever, we found we could speed it up two to five times, which means if you were looking at a decade of impact you could reduce it to two to five years. So the question becomes if it was going to be a decade, is speeding it up worth the effort? And generally, I’d argue, it is.

YOUNG: So, this might be especially beneficial for areas that are really hard to clean otherwise, right?

ATLAS: It certainly looks like the marshes represent an area where bio-remediation may be needed, and certainly, if any of these storms move the oil into the bays and it becomes trapped in other sorts of shorelines, that’s where I’d expect bio-remediation to be most useful. The good news is that the oil will naturally weather, the ecosystem will eventually recover, and the downside is it’s not going to happen instantly. We’ve just not found the magic bullets that will make this oil go away tomorrow.

YOUNG: Dr. Ronald Atlas, microbiologist and expert on bio-remediation and oil spills, thank you very much.

ATLAS: Thank you.

YOUNG: And, by the way, scientists monitoring the dead zone that forms around the Mississippi delta each year, just put out their forecast for this year. They expect the dead zone to cover some 77 hundred square miles, an area the size of New Jersey. And that’s not factoring in possible effects of the oil, which will likely lower oxygen levels in some waters even further. There’s more about this and all of our special Gulf coverage at our website, loe.org.

[MUSIC] Bill Frisell “Finger Snappin And Toes Tappin” from Ghost Town (Nonesuch 2000).

YOUNG: Just ahead - how the longest serving Senator changed his mind about old King Coal - keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC] Lee Ritenour: “Lay It Down” from 6 String Theory (Concord Music Group 2010).




Center for Health Hazards Preparedness at University of Louisville


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