Oil Eating Bacteria


In a recent conversation about the safety and ethics of synthetic biology in the wake of the announcement of the synthetic genome, many of the professors I was chatting with commented on how they hoped new synthetic biology technology would lead to bacteria that could eat the oil spilling into the gulf of mexico even as I type this right now. Of course, the "technology" for oil eating bacteria already exists and have already been used for clean up in previous oil spills--many naturally occurring species of bacteria can already break down the hydrocarbons in crude oil. The natural oil eaters end up competing with each other, however, leading to decreased efficiency in an already slow clean-up process (these are bacteria after all, not oil-phiranas). Genetic engineering and directed evolution technology has led to the design of improved strains of oil eating bacteria that can proceed more quickly and more stably than the natural strains, and has already been patented--in 1971.

Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an Indian-born scientist working at GE in the 1960's and 1970's, developed the multi-plasmid hydrocarbon-degrading Pseudomonas and patented it. This was the first time anyone had patented a living organism, and the fight over whether genetically engineered creatures could be patented started by Chakrabarty's filing led to the Supreme Court's Landmark 1980 decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that "A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under [Title 35 U.S.C.] 101. Respondent's micro-organism constitutes a "manufacture" or "composition of matter" within that statute." This decision made a huge impact on the biotechnology industry and is still hugely important today in debates over how synthetic biology can be regulated, how open-source synthetic biological components can be used and shared, and even how technologies based entirely on naturally occurring genes are patented and regulated.

Not only did the engineered oil-eating bacteria spark debate on ownership and patentability of living organisms, but it also began discussion of how and when genetically engineered organisms could be released into the environment. This question is far from solved, with the fate of genetically engineered organisms to clean up oil or perform other kinds of environmental bioremediation still unclear as the possible harm to the environment by uncontrolled growth of engineered strains is weighed against the environmental impact of what the bacteria are designed to clean up. In the case of the oil-eating bacteria, the interests of the oil company also play a role--you don't want uncontrolled growth of an organism that eats your product getting into your wells. While such uncontrolled growth is unlikely because the bacteria need injection of other elemental fertilizers besides the carbon in the oil to grow, it is something that has been brought up. Importantly, however, the bacteria often just can't compete with the scale of the disaster alone. The bacterial metabolism of crude oil cannot move faster than the oil kills wildlife, but oil-eating bacteria have been and will continue to be part of the long-term clean-up process for oil spills.

Needless to say, this is a complicated issue, highlighting many of the ethical, environmental, social, economic, and political implications of genetic engineering technology. As we have seen over the last few weeks, there is no magic bullet for fixing this particular oil spill or for producing plentiful energy safely. Engineered bacteria could play an active role in solving both problems, hopefully safely and with everyone's best interests in mind.

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Has the Chakrabarty patent had any effect on companies which produce oil-degrading products? I wonder if it was an exclusive or non-exclusive patent. With the debates about whether or not gene patents will affect innovation the Chakrabarty case may serve as an interesting case study. I wonder if any work has been done with respect to that...

I remember hearing about the oil-eating Pseudomonas during iGEM. I'm guessing as far as BP goes it might be a bit of an ethical minefield getting permission to release a load of Pseudomonas into the middle of the sea, also I'm not sure they would survive too well out there. You'd ideally need a suicide switch in the bacteria as well, so that once they've eaten a certain amount of oil they kill themselves.

Sorry about the snarky and irritated comments in your other threads by the way. Your posts have been really great, I especially liked the social biases study, just some of the comments annoyed me.

Most of these bacteria cannot survive on carbon sources other than what they were engineered to use. They eat the oil then die. Of course you run the risk of mutation, but what's worse killing the Gulf with oil or risk a mutant bacteria that was derived from those that are ubiquitous? The answer is obvious to me. Thes GMOs would be especially useful in the marsh areas where absolutely no other technique will work. If it's not too late already, by the time these material get debated for a few more months it will certainly be too late.

My understanding is that in the late 1970s there were two spills in Texas that used oil-eating microbes/bacteria to reduce the impact of the spills. One was at sea in open water and the other was in Galveston Bay. There is footage on youtube from news casts of the time showing small boats spraying a bacteria solution onto oil on islands in the bay. They claim that mere weeks later there was no trace of oil visible and the plant life was healthy, while on untreated islands the plants were devastated...just brown and dead. The video claims there are stockpiles of dried bacteria ready to be deployed.
If it is a proven method, why aren't we seeing it used in the marshes today?

The video claims these are naturally occuring bacteria in concentrated form, so what is the potential harm...introduced species?

There are a number of bacterial species that can oxidize hydrocarbons in anoxic environments using sulfate or nitrate as electron donors. The sulfate reducting bacteria make hydrogen sulfide and the carbon and some hydrogen end up at bicarbonate.

So it seems the principal research objective should be optimization of the substrates for the bacteria so that we do not overdo the fertilizers used for nitrogen needs of the organism and the sulfates or other substances such as cobalt for the needed B-12 for some species.This is a systems engineering problem that goes beyond bacteriology.

There is promise and some laboratory experiments seem warranted. I plan to use carbon-14 as the natural background of carbon-13 is too high for kinetic studies and I am in an environment that can approve appropriate experiments. Trick is to get the funding. Any ideas?

By Tom Iceberg (not verified) on 24 Jun 2010 #permalink

Why aren't oil-eating bacteria used for the Gulf spill?!?

The media wasn't about to report this kind of info until the spill had reached second page status.

I am aware of a company called Dove Biotech that has a product called Organizorb that cleans up oil spills. They also have a video of how it works on you tube. Just type in Organizorb or Dove Biotech Ltd.

By Rodney Sooklal (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

i like this article its very informationnal.

can you say me how to isolate "eaters oil".

The picture is very gruesome and disturbing