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SCIENTISTS DISCOVER BACTERIA THAT CAN CLEAN OIL SPILLS

“Certain species of bacteria can degrade oil,” said Dwi Susilaningsih, a biotechnology researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI. Indonesian shipping lanes, which are among the busiest in the world, have long been plagued by oil spills.

It seems that the marketing tagline, “Indonesia — the Ultimate in Diversity,” extends to the microscopic world of bacteria as well.

A team of Indonesian and Japanese scientists scouring the layers of sediment under Indonesian seas said that they had been able to isolate 1,200 individual species of the unicellular microorganisms, including 182 new bacterial species, that could be used to clean up large-scale oil spills from shipping accidents.

“Certain species of bacteria can degrade oil,” said Dwi Susilaningsih, a biotechnology researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI.

Indonesian shipping lanes, which are among the busiest in the world, have long been plagued by oil spills.

“The areas that face the most risk in terms of oil spills because of heavy maritime traffic are the Malacca and Sunda straits, as well as the waters around Java,” Dwi said.

Since 1970, there had been as many as 170 oil spills involving tankers in Indonesian waters, causing serious environmental damage, according to Dwi.

She said that the accidents had attracted the attention of LIPI and Japan[ES][SQ]s National Institute of Technology and Evaluation, or NITE , resulting in a joint effort between the two countries to find a better way to treat oil spills.

There are currently several chemical-based treatments for oil spills, but environmental groups have complained that they were not environmentally friendly.

“Some people were not aware that a number of these chemicals were toxic and harmful to marine life,” she said.

Dwi said that machines could also be used to treat water contaminated with oil slicks, but such a procedure leaves behind residues that still require chemical treatment.

“That was what motivated us to look for a biological alternative,” she said.

The researchers had long been aware that thousands of species of bacteria were capable of degrading oil. Armed with that knowledge, LIPI and NITE worked together to isolate and identify oil-degrading microorganisms.

The two groups analyzed the effects of the bacteria on minor oil slicks in three busy shipping areas: Malacca strait, Pari Island and Lombok strait.

Six researchers from Japan and 15 staffers from LIPI[ES][SQ]s research center for biology, biotechnology and oceanography took part in the program, which started on August 2005 and took three years to complete.

The Japanese institution fully funded the research, spending Rp 3 billion ($255,000) for the heavy equipment alone.

According to an agreement signed by both countries, the researchers would seek a way to make the use of oil-degrading bacteria more practical.

The researchers already have an idea: a liquid solution or powder mixture made mostly of the bacteria, which could be dispersed by ocean clean-up authorities in the affected areas.

“The bacteria would break up the long oil carbon chain,” Dwi said. “After the carbon chain is broken, the bacteria degrade the oil and any residue that is left behind.”

LIPI urged the government to closely watch the use of chemical s to clean oil spills.

Arudji Wahyono, head of the Oil Spills Mitigation Team for upstream oil and gas regulator BP Migas, hailed the discovery, saying it could provide a good alternative to dispersants, which were currently used by most companies when dealing with maritime accidents.

“The dispersants are not harmful to the environment, but the use of bacteria to treat oil contaminations presents a biological alternative,” he said.

However, he said that LIPI should provide a guarantee that the bacteria had passed laboratory tests and would not have any negative effects on marine life.

Anita Rachman
Source : Jakarta Globe (13 February 2009)

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