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Published April 5, 2011

Scientists are experimenting with "green" microbes in the lab that could someday be used to gobble up oil spills along coastlines without damaging the environment.

© 2011 National Geographic; partially funded by NSF; field producing and videography by Fritz Faerber

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UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT:

SKIMMING, CONTROLLED BURNS AND DISPERSANTS ARE SOME OF THE MAIN TOOLS USED TO CONTROL BIG OFFSHORE OIL SPILLS LIKE THE APRIL 2010 SPILL IN THE GULF OF MEXICO. BUT ONCE THE OIL GETS ON SHORE OR INTO MARSHLAND, IT POSES A MUCH DIFFERENT SET OF PROBLEMS.

Wetlands soiled by oil can be damaged further when cleaned… SO DEALING WITH OIL ON SHORE IS A KEY AREA OF RESEARCH FOR SCIENTISTS. TULANE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR KYRIAKOS PAPADOPOULOS AND HIS STUDENTS ARE STUDYING HOW OIL, DISPERSANTS AND BACTERIA MOVE THROUGH POROUS MATERIAL LIKE the SAND and MUD THAT MAKES UP COASTLINES.

SOT: Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Tulane Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

“Once the oil reaches sediments and beaches and bayous, how does it transport itself through the porous medium that those beaches and bayous constitute. But the other very important question that we can answer through this is how we can intervene in order for the oil to be removed.”

PART OF THAT QUESTION IS WHich PRODUCTS WORK BEST TO REMOVE OIL WHILE DOING THE LEAST HARM TO THE ENVIRONMENT. A COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY TEAM WORKING WITH THE TULANE GROUP IS TESTING AND DEVELOPING something known as REAGENTS. A reagent, in this instance, would be a microorganism able to digest the oil. Ideally, the product created by the microorganism after consuming the oil would be harmless to the environment.

SOT: Som Somasundaran, Columbia University

“The oil that is spilled on marshland you cannot use the techniques that are used on the surface of the ocean. You cannot burn it, you cannot use the booms there because you don’t want to disturb the marshland. And so different techniques are required. ”

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY – OR ENLISTING MICROBES TO WORK AS TINY CHEMICAL PLANTS – MAY SOON DELIVER DISPERSANTS AND OTHER PRODUCTS TO HELP CLEAN UP OIL SPILLS. BUT IT’S COMPLICATED – SINCE OIL CAN BE SPILLED under WIDELY DIFFERENT CONDITIONS.

Sot: Somasundaran

“We are looking at all these factors to optimize the window of reagents available for taking care of oil spills. Why window? Because depending on where the spill is – in the Gulf, or in Alaska, the temperature is different, the salinity is different…”

THESE TWO TEAMS, WORKING SOME 13-HUNDRED MILES APART HOPE THEIR RESEARCH WILL YIELD A GREENER CLEANER TECHNIQUE. AND PAPADOPOULOS SAYS SOME OF THE BACTERIA BEHAVIOR HE’S SEEN IN THE LAB COULD MEAN THE NEW MICROBES MAY EVEN move on their own to seek out and CLEAN UP OIL BURIED IN SAND OR SOIL.

Sot: Papadopoulos

“There is a phenomenon we have not published yet, but I hope to publish soon that we call styri-taxis (sp?), meaning bacteria moving to distances they would not have moved otherwise, Just because once they enter the very small, confining spaces of porous medium, they cannot turn back.”

A LOT MORE STUDY IS NEEDED, BUT THE SCIENCE COMING OUT OF THESE LABS COULD ONE DAY YIELD A BACTERIUM TO BE SPRINKLED IN THE MARSHES, TO WORK ITS WAY DOWN TO CLEAN UP BURIED OIL.


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