It was one of my junior high school science projects - to discover a bacteria that could eat up oil spills. I had little pans of used motor oil everywhere, which sorely vexed my dad. Alas, I was not successful.
Bacteria Breaks Down Oil, Cleans Gulf of Mexico tells that nature had already produced such creatures. Alcanivorax is a voracious, oil-eating bacteria. At the New Horizon oil spill last year, researchers found sixteen varieties of bacteria within the oil plume. Not all of the chemicals within the plume could be digested by the bacteria - only the hydrocarbons. How bacteria are able to break down hydrocarbons and other toxic substances has been a mystery.
How Bacteria Can Break Down Hazardous Environmental Pollutants tells that bacteria can also break down phosphoric acids, detergents, and other chemicals such as herbicides. Again, the how was unknown. Professor David Zechel and his team have identified proteins produced by the bacteria which break the strong chemical bonds of these harmful substances. Phosphoric compounds, similar to hydrocarbons have been particularly difficult to break down with other methods, but agriculture fertilizer runoff is wreaking havoc in our oceans and lakes.
This breakthrough will make it possible to develop more scalable techniques for containing pollution. Similar to photosynthesis, living organisms can perform very complex chemical reactions. The problem of course, is scalability - we either need lots of algae-produced synthetic petroleum, or lots of petroleum eaten away at the scene of an oil spill. While life is persistent, if not overwhelming, it takes time.