A research scientist working in the laboratories of the General Electric company in the United States is developing what he calls a "superbug" -- a microbe that can digest petroleum.
A research scientist working in the laboratories of the General Electric company in the United States is developing what he calls a "superbug" -- a microbe that can digest petroleum. One way in which this could be particularly useful is in helping to clean up oil slicks.
The scientist is Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty, a microbiologist who specialises in genetics. He says that microbes that could ingest hydrocarbons were already known; but there was none that could take in all the types of hydrocarbons that make up petroleum. He has combined four different strains of microbe into his superbug; and he has demonstrated it can swallow up oil much faster than any of the previous on film. A transcript follows:
At sea, when they've eaten up the oil, the superbugs reproduce themselves and become part of the natural food chain. They are eaten by algae, which are eaten by the daphnia, a tiny shrimp-like creature. These in turn are eaten by fish--which may be caught and eaten by man.
For use against an oil slick,the superbugs would be freeze-dried into a powder. Dr. Ron Brooks, manager of the Environmental unit at the General Electric Research and Development Centre, explains on film what would happen them. A transcript of his remarks follows:
Dr. Brooks says "conceptually" because the superbug is still only in the laboratory stage. Extensive field tests will have to be carried out before it can be used on an actual oil spill. For instance, it is necessary to make sure that it will not produce any ecological snags.
In its present state of development the superbug can digest about two thirds of the hydrocarbons found in an oil slick. Dr. chakrabarty is still working on producing a super-superbug that could deal with the rest.
There are other possible uses for the microbe--one is to digest petroleum and convert it into a protein-rich microbial cell mass that could be used for animal feed. Another is to digest the waxy hydrocarbons that tend to block the flow of oil in an ageing oilfield, and so make it easier to pump out.