EU: Seeking bacterial solution to oil spills

Universities in the UK, Germany and Denmark are part of a team that has won EU funding to research a novel way of cleaning up oil spills.

The scientists will investigate the use of bacteria to break down a group of toxic hydrocarbons particularly common in heavy oil and crude oil.

The team includes Bangor University, Leipzig University, and two Danish universities, Aarhus University and the Danish Technical University, and nine other partner organisations.

It is led by the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Germany and has received EUR3 million (US$4 million) from the EU.

Dubbed MAGICPAH, the research team will study how bacteria in soil and in marine environments could be used to break down polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs.

PAHs are poorly degradable, often toxic and carcinogenic, and cause soil contamination. But bacteria could provide a means of cleaning them up.

"Petroleum-degrading bacterial communities harbour a considerable and hitherto unexploited potential," said Dr Dietmar Pieper of the Helmholtz Centre.

But he said one obstacle facing the team is that few bacteria in soils and marine ecosystems can be cultivated in the lab.

That means the researchers must use cultivation-independent methods to make use of the micro-organisms' capabilities without having to previously propagate them in the laboratory.

The project would initially analyse microbial diversity and the molecular processes which play a significant role in the removal of PAH contaminants from soils, sediments and waste water.

"The information collected here in different experimental systems will be used for the design of new knowledge-based strategies for the mitigation of ecological damage caused by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in various habitats," Pieper said.