Using bacteria to clean-up oil spills

Scientists have used marine bacteria to assist in cleaning up after oil spills. A new group has found out which parameters need to be changed in order to make the process more efficient.


Bacteria clean-up oil spills through a process called bioremediation. This is a process where plants, bacterial decomposers or enzymes are used to remove contaminants and restore the balance of nature in the wake of pollution incidents.


To explore this further, researchers set up a number of experiments in the marine laboratory. Their aim was to look into how the microscopic residents of the oceans, such as bacteria and other microbes, can assist us in cleaning up pollutants, and whether they are capable of restoring the natural balance afterwards.

Sixteen tanks were filled with sediments, together with naturally-occurring bacterial flora, oil and seawater. The researchers also simulated the action of the tides by replacing the seawater and thus ensuring that there was an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients. What then happened in the tanks was carefully recorded.


The research found that a number of parameters can be altered in order to make the bacteria work better. The key parameters are to increase the water temperature, reduce the oxygen concentration and extended the duration of the experiment. The tidal regime was also adjusted, so that now there was a 12-hour interval (instead of the previous three) between the introduction of new water to the tanks.


The research was carried out at SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia.

The finding links with research reviewed by Digital Journal last year when it was noted that that the microorganisms do not always move in a way that is optimal in the event of a pollution disaster like an oil spill. A team of scientists came up with a solution: by actively changing the angle of the bodies of the microorganisms relative to the surfaces, these feeders overcome the physical constraints presented by underwater surfaces, maximize their access to fresh, nutrient-rich water, and filter the surrounding water.

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