After a disastrous deep-sea oil spill, a bacteria was discovered at great ocean depths, feasting on the oil. Now known as Alcanivorax borkumensis, the bacteria was able to digest oil by breaking down petroleum hydrocarbons with the use of special enzymes — something no other known bacteria can do.

Satinder Kaur Brar, an environmental engineer at York University, wants to find out if the Alcanivorax bacteria can clean up oil spills and contaminated soils as well. Cleaning up oil from industrial sites, burst pipelines and old oil tanks can be extremely difficult. The soil can be removed but that just moves the problem elsewhere. Chemicals can be used to break down the petroleum products but could leave behind other toxic residues.

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Brar’s solution? Pump Alcanivorax enzymes into the contaminated soil to digest the oil molecules, turning them into non-toxic carbon dioxide and water in a matter of weeks. If she’s successful, cleaning up oil spills of the future will be much simpler and much more environmentally friendly.

Watch the video above for the full story.

For more, watch Nature’s Cleanup Crew on The Nature of Things.

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