Scientific Serendipity: The Accidental Discoveries of Three Climate-Saving Bacteria

A collection of studies.

(American Energy Society) – Serendipity is a happy and unexpected event that occurs due to chance and often appears when we are searching for something else. Serendipity is a delight when it happens in our daily lives. But it has also led to many innovations and important advances in science and technology.

It may seem odd to refer to chance when discussing science. Scientific research supposedly operates in a very methodical, precise, and controlled way, with no room for chance in any area of the investigation. However, scientists know (and the public less so) that chance plays an important role in research and has been responsible for some significant discoveries in the past. This is the case with specific bacteria discovered in the world’s oceans, and how these small organisms may play a larger-than-expected role in solving some of energy’s biggest problems.

The Oil Eating Bacteria That Can Clean Up Crude Spills

It is not widely known that the 2010 oil spill caused by the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform could have been even worse were it not for bacteria. Several species of marine bacteria that feed on ingredients in crude oil and natural gas bloomed during the spill, feasting on Louisiana light, sweet crude. A research group from the University of Quebec’s INRS research center accidentally discovered that one of these species was a particularly effective candidate as a champion against oil spills.

Meet Alcanivorax borkumensis, or A. borkumensis for short. This rod-shaped microbe, which lives in all of the world’s oceans, has a special preference for oil-polluted areas because it uses hydrocarbon molecules for food. The bacterium’s genome was sequenced more than 10 years ago by a couple of researchers from the German Research Center for Biotechnology—but now another team has identified the enzymes the bacteria produce to break down crude oil and gas.

Professor Satinder Kaur Brar and his Quebec team singled out this particular bacterium because, he says, he had a hunch that, among several bacterial strains available, A. borkumensis might evolve into the most voracious oil eater available. Indeed, the bacterium had developed a Hydroxilase enzyme capable of consuming almost all the molecules that make up crude oil. (Hydroxilase, like other enzymes, catalyze oxidation, but the hydroxilases are more efficient than other enzymes at breaking down crude oil components in water and soil.  In fact, Hydroxilase enzymes are so good, they are capable of breaking down 80 percent of various crude oil compounds.)

So, tiny little A. borkumensis is a very promising microorganism that can theoretically be used to clean up oil spills both in the water and on the ground, even in difficult to reach areas, which is especially valuable. These bacteria thrive in polluted waters. Theoretically again, they can be kept in stock in oil-rich pools, ready to be deployed to a spill site when necessary. Also, they could probably be modified to become even better oil eaters, turning them into a cheap, easy to use solution to the problem that had plagued the oil industry for decades.

The question is when the theoretical can become practical. For now, it is a question without an answer.

Bacteria that Assist with “Cleaning up the Cleanup” 

In response to an oil spill, emergency personnel use multiple strategies to remove oil from the water: they burn it, skim it from the water’s surface, or apply chemical dispersants to break the oil into small droplets.  These dispersants are complex chemical molecules that contain carbon and sulphur and are known to cause environmental problems themselves. For example, during the Deepwater Horizon cleanup effort, responders used 1.84 million gallons of dispersants on and under the water’s surface. Though their long-term impacts on the environment are still largely unknown, some studies suggest that Corexit, the main dispersant used after the Deepwater Horizon spill, can be harmful to humans and marine life.

Investigating bacteria breakdown of oil, microbiologists at the University of Texas, Austin,recently discovered that some bacteria might also assist with “cleanup after the cleanup,” meaning they eat what humans pour into the water to clean up the oil. By sequencing the DNA Neptuniibacter, a bacterium only recently identified as an important oil-degrader, scientists found evidence that this bacterium can also degrade sulfur-containing compounds like those found in the dispersants used after the Deepwater Horizon spill. According to the UT-Austin postdoctoral researcher Nina Dombrowski, “We found a number of bacteria surprisingly capable of dealing with the more dangerous compounds” related to an oil spill. “This has implications for future oil spills and how we take advantage of the natural environmental response.”

Not all bacteria respond well to dispersants, but Dombrowski says the importance of “bacteria-friendly” is clear, and so the search will continue. And with a bit of luck, perhaps someone will discover why – or how – bacteria can be genetically programmed to eat oil in a manner that allows science to create better dispersants and improve ocean-cleanup strategies.

The Mutant Enzyme That Breaks Down Plastic 

There are research teams around the world dedicated to finding a remedy for the growing plastic pollution crisis, but now it seems that one group of scientists have found a feasible answer — and they stumbled upon it by accident. Researchers studying a newly-discovered bacterium found that with a few tweaks, the bug can be turned into a mutant enzyme that starts eating plastic in a matter of days, compared to the centuries it takes for plastic to break down.

The surprise discovery was made when scientists began investigating the structure of a bacterium found in a waste dump in Japan. The bug produced an enzyme, which the team studied using the Diamond Light Source, an intense beam of X-rays 10 billion times brighter than the sun. At first, the enzyme looked similar to one that is capable of breaking down cutin, a natural polymer used by plants as a protective layer. But after some gentle manipulation, the team actually improved its ability to eat PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the type of plastic used in drink bottles.

Professor John McGeehan, who led the research from the University of Portsmouth, said the discovery was “a bit of a shock,” but fortunately could have a significant impact on the mounting global plastics problem. PET bottles that are currently recycled can only be turned into fibers for clothing and carpets. Instead, the mutant enzyme could be used to turn plastic back into its original components. “It means [we could] fundamentally reduce the amount of plastic in the environment,” said McGeehan.

Existing examples of industrial enzymes, such as those used in detergents and biofuels, have been manipulated to work up to 1,000 times faster – McGeehan believes the same could be possible with the new enzyme: “It gives us scope to use all the technology used in other enzyme development for years and years and make a super-fast enzyme.” According to the team, potential future uses for the enzyme could include spraying it on the huge islands of floating plastic in oceans to break down the material, heralding in an entirely new way of dealing with the issue.

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Edited for Content and Length by Katy McCune. Katy is the managing editor from the American Energy Society.

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