Scientists from Ocean University in Qingdao, China and the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England have made an incredible discovery that could one day save the planet from the ecological devastation of oil spills. In the deepest depths of the ocean, a team of researchers from England, China, and Russia discovered a bacteria that eats oil. The groundbreaking discovery was published this week in the scientific journal Microbiome.
Ocean University professor and leader of the study Xiao-Hua Zhang gave context to the extreme ambition of his team’s research saying, “We know more about Mars than the deepest part of the ocean.” Zhang’s team discovered the groundbreaking oil-eating bacteria in an extremely comprehensive analysis of microbial populations in the western Pacific Ocean’s 10,994-meter-deep Mariana Trench (for reference, Mt. Everest is a mere 8,848 metres tall)–one of very few in-depth explorations of the microbiology of the trench’s ecosystem living in extreme darkness and crushing pressure (“which is equal to 1,091 kilograms pressed against a fingernail”) at the bottom of the sea.
The conditions in the trench present unique challenges to collecting samples for scientific study, making exploration of the area’s flora and fauna a complete impossibility until very recently. “Our research team went down to collect samples of the microbial population at the deepest part of the Mariana Trench—some 11,000 metres down,” explained the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences’ Dr. Jonathan Todd. “We studied the samples that were brought back and identified a new group of hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.”
Breaking down the vast potential of the team’s groundbreaking discovery, Dr. Todd goes on to explain, “Hydrocarbons are organic compounds that are made of only hydrogen and carbon atoms, and they are found in many places, including crude oil and natural gas. So these types of microorganisms essentially eat compounds similar to those in oil and then use it for fuel. Similar microorganisms play a role in degrading oil spills in natural disasters such as BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Importantly, it seems that the miraculous bacteria is abundant at the bottom of the Mariana Trench–the highest population of this kind of bacteria on Earth, in fact. In order for the bacteria to do their thing–degrading hydrocarbons–however, the extreme environmental conditions of one of the most uniquely conditioned places on Earth must be painstakingly recreated. The scientists we successfully able to simulate the bacteria’s home environment in the laboratory, but we are a long, long way from being able to recreate the experiment on a large enough scale to make any sort of cleanup attempt on something like the 2010 BP oil spill.
And just what are hydrocarbons doing all the way at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, you may well be wondering? The research team looked into this question as well, analyzing the source of the bacteria’s “food source” by looking at samples of seawater taken from varying depths, all the way from the surface to the sediment at the very bottom of the Mariana Trench. “We found that hydrocarbons exist as deep as 6,000 meters below the surface of the ocean and probably even deeper. A significant proportion of them probably derived from ocean surface pollution,” said Dr. Nikolai Pedentchouk of the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences. “To our surprise, we also identified biologically produced hydrocarbons in the ocean sediment at the bottom of the trench. This suggests that a unique microbial population is producing hydrocarbons in this environment. These hydrocarbons, similar to the compounds that constitute diesel fuel, have been found in algae at the ocean surface but never in microbes at these depths.”
Moving forward the team will continue to research the bacteria and their supply of hydrocarbons, with a specific focus on how much of their food source is naturally occurring and how much is man-made contamination. While it’s far too soon to say whether these bacteria could be employed to clean up a mass of hydrocarbons the magnitude of an oil spill, it is certainly a hopeful discovery that could lead to promising innovations where they are so sorely needed.