IN 2010, almost five million barrels (800 million L) of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico after a drilling rig exploded and sank. Yet, within months much of the contamination had disappeared. How was that possible?
Scientific research has shown that an array of marine bacteria can break down the long-chain carbon molecules present in oil. Professor Terry Hazen, an environmental microbiologist, described these organisms as “oil-seeking missiles.” Such organisms were partly responsible for what took place in the Gulf of Mexico, as described at the outset.
“In a sense, it is no surprise that the seas should host oil-hungry microbes,” says a BBC report on the topic. After all, “natural seeps from the ocean floor have been releasing oil into the world’s waters” for aeons.
Granted, human efforts in cleaning oil spills are productive. Yet, man’s best efforts to clean up oil spills may do more harm than good. Chemical dispersants interfere with natural processes that break down oil. Added to that, such chemicals are toxic and have lasting ill effects on the environment. But nature’s oil-decomposing capacity, including oil-hungry microbes, enables the sea to activate a self-cleansing process without the negative side effects of artificial methods.