Innovation/Global Risk 

Nature’s Resilience: Bacteria “Eat” the Gulf Oil Spill

By Shlomo Maital  


 oil-eating bacteria


According to the BBC World Service program “Science in Action”,  the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by a massive ‘leak’ in a British Petroleum oil well “Macondo 252”, has been effectively battled – not so much by cleanup crews as by Nature itself.  At times, 53,000 bbl. of oil a day spilled into the lovely waters of the Gulf.   But the oil sounded a ‘dinner bell’ for Nature —  Hey, lunch is served, come and get it!  And the bacteria came. 

    As their food supply expanded,  the bacteria themselves ‘bloomed’, meaning they reproduced very quickly and grew huge colonies around and in the oil.  Nature very quickly assembled bacteria for whom hydrocarbons were tasty.   The cleanup crews used chemicals to break up the oil, and at times the chemicals themselves were worse pollutants than the crude oil. 

   According to reporters, there are still clumps of tar on the beaches along the Gulf Coast, which makes its living from both oil wells and from tourism.  But for the most part, Nature has been far faster and far more effective in cleaning up the mess than anyone expected.  Some 800 m. liters of hydrocarbons spilled into the Gulf. Around one quarter was cleaned up by humans.  The rest?  Leave it to Nature.  According to the Scientific American, as much as half of these 800 m. liters have already been eaten up by bacteria.  Many of the bacteria are new forms, not familiar to scientists, that perhaps have evolved in response to the huge and unexpected ‘feast’.  And yes, the tar balls ARE a big problem, as they spread across beaches and the world’s oceans. 

   But again, Nature has proven that it is not only humans who are resilient, but Nature itself.   If only we humans could help miraculous Nature protect itself, rather than dump ever-larger messes on it and test the innovative power of natural evolution.