Bacteria Gobble Up Oil Spills

Black, sticky oil washed ashore after the oil spill in 2010

Black, sticky oil washed ashore after the oil spill in 2010

When the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill spewed almost 5 million barrels (nearly one and a half billion tons) of black, petroleum Oil into the ocean in 2010, no one knew how the environment would handle it. In the beginning, of course, the black, sticky mess covered everything, killing fish and birds and pilling up on beaches. But nature is resilient, and as time went by, natural processes stepped in to help with clean-up.

Certain species of bacteria began to gobble it up. These bacteria were already eating dead plants and animals, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to shift their diets to oil. After all, that’s what oil is made of.

No one really knows how oil is made or how long it takes, but the leading theory is that when dead plants and animals settle to the bottom of oceans, streams and lakes, they’re covered over by sand and soil. Over hundreds of thousands of years the heat and the pressure somehow converts all that dead organic material into the dark waxy stuff called Kerogen.

Remember that organic matter–plants and animals–are made up mostly of carbon, and over time, the Kerogen breaks up into a substance made almost entirely of carbon and hydrogen, which is what makes up petroleum oil and natural gas.

So, back to the bacteria; when the oil spill happened, certain bacteria started chowing down on all this new food. It’s not for everyone, though. Oil doesn’t have enough of the other nutrients bacteria need, like nitrogen. Some bacteria have been able to pull more nitrogen out of the air to supplement their oil diet.

Maybe someday, scientists will be able to use oil-eating bacteria to clean-up oil spills.

That’s why Conyer didn’t have to stray too far from real life to have her characters use bacteria as a tool. In Restricted Waters, bacteria was used to stop the uncontrolled spread of the Fouling. Although the Fouling wasn’t made of oil, it’s no coincidence that Conyer imagined the Fouling as an organism that gobbled up petroleum oil.

Another example of how fiction is part imagination and part truth.

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