09 September 2014

Microbes clean up the oceans

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Oil spills and plastic waste are polluting our oceans – destroying marine life and contaminating beaches. Now scientists are exploring how they can get microbes to degrade these substances more effectively and thus reduce the pollution in the sea.

Human civilization is responsible for large traces of non-organic materials in the oceans, namely crude oil and plastics. Two European research projects are now investigating how microbes can help to eliminate these substances in the sea.

Experts from the EU Project “Kill-Spill” have gathered in Brest, France to verify how they can improve the conditions for oil-eating bacteria in the seawater.

The scientists experiment with a new bio-based dispersant that transforms the oil in the water into a cloud. This cloud consists of very tiny oil droplets, which can be eaten by microbes much faster when they are smaller. And as the new dispersant is bio-based, there are no other non-degradable substances involved in this process.

Additionally the scientists add nutrients to help the bacteria to divide and thus increase the rate of degradation. A process that takes years in nature, could be speeded up to only a few weeks, according to the project’s coordinator Nikolas Kalogerakis, from the University of Crete.

At the University of Bologna, Italy researchers are concerned about the increasing amounts of plastic waste in our oceans. Around 10 million tons of plastic are entering the sea every year worldwide, and this is not only a hazard for the beaches, but a serious health problem for marine life in general. Within the European research project “BioClean”, scientists are currently studying 1.200 probes and have identified a total of 30 bacteria and fungi, which are able to degrade at least one type of plastic material. The aim of the scientists is now to study these microbes further to try to improve their biodegradation potential.

Both these studies could play an important role in speeding up the cleaning up process in the oceans, as they both have shown how powerful microbes can be in eliminating the waste of human kind.  

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