We’ve all been inundated, intimidated, and otherwise depressed with the oil-slick covered ocean, the stark images of for sale signs on hundreds of docked shrimp boats on the Louisiana coast, the oil-infested coastal wetlands, and the ghastly images of untold thousands of black sludge-covered dead fish and marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has not always been forthcoming in its estimates of the damages, and the full story is only starting to be told as the “static kill” of the Macondo well appears to have finally capped the underwater gusher.
Millions of barrels of oil later, the oil slick appears to be dissipating much more quickly than expected. The New York Times reports that only 26 percent of the oil is still in the water or onshore “in a form that could, in principal, cause new problems.” Three reasons are cited: evaporation, dilution from storms, and oil-eating bacteria.
The very first living organism to be patented was a bacterium engineered in the 1970s to degrade components of crude oil. So far, researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency say that experiments with engineered bacteria cannot compete with bacteria already living on beaches and marshes. According to Science, adding nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the beaches can speed up the ability of natural bacteria to break down oil. “What would’ve taken 5 or 6 years to accomplish can occur in a single summer,” says bioremediation expert Ken Lee.
More than 23 tons of oil-eating bacteria have been sent to clean up the China oil spill in the Yellow Sea after two pipelines exploded July 16, 2010 at a Chinese oil storage depot in the port city of Dalian. A recent Newsweek article describes Ronald Atlas’ work on oil-spill bioremediation using oil-eating microbes. “Bioremediation has been used successfully to mitigate many previous oil spills,” says Atlas. “But success is defined differently than one might think in these cases. Bioremediation can eliminate only a portion of the compounds present in oil, and the process can take years.”
The danger of using engineered oil-eating bacteria – recognized by both Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy – is controlling how they get released into the environment. It’s not only the lack of effectiveness of currently engineered strains, but also the potential for their uncontrolled growth.
Craig Venter’s landmark creation of a cell controlled by a synthetic genome raises the interesting possibility of engineering other oil-eating organisms. Australia’s black tiger “super prawn” has already been bred to grow about 20 percent faster than other farmed tiger prawns. But the genetic identity of the super prawn is a carefully guarded trade secret. Converting spilled oil to high-value animal protein (and relief to an ailing gulf shrimp industry) is a challenge worthy of the newly announced $1.4 Million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X PRIZE, “… to find the most effective and environmentally-safe solutions for capturing oil from all spills at the spill site, thus limiting their impacts and protecting our oceans, shores, marshes, and, importantly, the health and well-being of the people and wildlife which live and thrive in these communities.
An oil-eating super prawn? Would you like black bean sauce with that?