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Scientists in Europe have sequenced the genome for an oil-eating bacterium, a move that could pave the way for faster and more efficient ways to clean up oil spills.

With a complete blueprint for Alcanivorax borkumensis, researchers hope to better understand the specialized physiological mechanisms that enable the bacteria to live almost exclusively on hydrocarbons, says Vitor Martins dos Santos of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (formerly the German Research Centre for Biotechnology) in Braunschweig, Germany, who co-led the international project. The sequencing of the 2,755-gene organism is described in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The findings could reveal how to optimize the conditions for these bugs and thus enable them to help mop up the hundreds of millions of liters of oil that enter the sea each year, says Martins dos Santos.

The ability of some bacteria to metabolize oil has been well known for more than a century. But so far efforts to exploit these capabilities for remediation efforts have faltered. “It has been used in the past and was a complete failure,” says Victor de Lorenzo, deputy director of the National Center of Biotechnology in Madrid, Spain.

In one example, bacteria were used experimentally to try to help clean up the 11 million gallons of crude oil spewed out by the Exxon Valdez after it ran aground off the coast of Alaska in 1989. But it didn’t make any difference, says de Lorenzo.

The problem was not a lack of bacteria, he says. Indeed, though the oil-eating bacteria are not common in unpolluted environments, they are plentiful where there is oil; A. borkumensis makes up as much as 90 percent of microbial populations in oil spills. The challenge in using these bacteria to clean up oil lies in creating the right conditions for them to grow faster and metabolize oil more efficiently. Cleanup workers have started to do this: “Now it is standard practice to add nutrients like oil-soluble forms of nitrogen and phosphorus to oil spills,” says de Lorenzo. However, they still have no real understanding of what specific nutrients the bacteria need, says Martins dos Santos.

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