Superbugs won't save the Gulf Coast. But that won't stop companies from selling them.
As crude washes into marshes and beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, several small businesses have been barnstorming to sell local and state officials on what seems like a dream scenario. Douse the oil with our compound, they say, and your contamination problems will likely vanish -- all through the miracle of microbes.
The companies -- which operate under names like MicroSorb, BioWorld and Sarva Bio Remed -- trade in a field known as bioaugmentation. Tossing together carefully cultivated and proprietary selections of bacteria known to feed on oil, they promise to outdo the natural microbial processes that fitfully, over years, break down oil in the environment. The sheer amount of oil is overwhelming, they argue, and more bacteria -- their bacteria -- are needed.
So far, these companies have gained little traction with the company responsible for the spill, BP PLC, or the federal government. Both are deeply skeptical of treating oil spills with foreign bacteria. But last week one of the most prominent bioaugmentation firms, MicroSorb Environmental Products Inc., made its case to a Senate committee, calling on lawmakers to help it gain access to the cleanup.
Tests applying the company's bacteria to samples from the Gulf spill found the microbes destroying 90 percent of the oil within a day, said Heather Baird, MicroSorb's vice president. Yet her company has not received any interest from BP, she said, and has faced a bewildering government bureaucracy.
"The resources currently deployed for this battle are insufficient to the task at hand," Baird said. "However, the necessary technology does exist. It is ready. It is highly efficacious for this task and has been proven again and again."
When it comes to proof, however, these companies and scientists have very different standards.
For more than two decades, researchers have chased the dream of introducing bacteria to accelerate the decomposition of oil spills. They have tried genetically engineering microbes -- the first patent for an engineered life, three decades ago, was for an oil-eating bacteria -- and they have packed together wild collections of exotic microbes into consortia. And yet the robustness of native life and oil's complexity have combined to render moot all efforts outside of the lab.
"Everyone has this dream of a superbug, that we could go and toss this organism out and chew up all the oil," said Ken Lee, director of the Canadian government's Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research. But once foreign bacteria enter ocean waters or soil, he said, they find it nearly impossible to stay alive, let alone thrive on the spilled oil.
While packaged bacteria have a potential role in treating tightly contained spills -- say, a spill from a railroad car or a heating oil leak -- and in supplementing rare regions that lack oil-eating bugs, even the densest concentrations of bacteria falter when it comes to treating environments like the Gulf. Long exposed to oil seeps, the Gulf's riot of microbial life is already too well-suited to the task, scientists say (Greenwire, June 17).
But this inability to compete with native bacteria has not stopped firms from pursuing their pitches. "Let's just say I've gotten frequent calls from companies wanting to demonstrate their product," said Jay Grimes, marine microbiologist at the University of Southern Mississippi. The bacteria introduced by such products, he added, would find little room in Gulf ecology.
"You've got all the niches occupied," Grimes said. "It's very difficult to introduce something exogenous or foreign. It's very difficult for these guys to come into a habitat and outcompete the guys who are there."
'Unfortunate learning opportunity'
Evidence from Exxon Valdez and an experimental spill conducted by U.S. EPA along the Delaware coast have shown that bioaugmentation is highly unlikely to be of any help in treating the Gulf spill, Ron Atlas, a biologist at the University of Louisville and one of the country's most prominent oil spill experts, wrote on the blog of the American Society for Microbiology.
Yet this failure, he wrote, "does not stop companies from trying to sell an immediate solution that will instantly clean up the spilled oil, or from ignoring or denigrating the scientific literature about the lack of demonstrated value of seeding cultures as opposed to just adding fertilizers to speed up rates of oil biodegradation."
Gulf residents and government panicked by the oil could find themselves investing in superfluous bacteria, Atlas warned. "Let's hope that BP insists on scientifically proven methods and resists the urge to buy instant snake oil cures," he wrote.
The companies selling bacteria treatments dispute the harsh characterizations some scientists level at them. While most peer-reviewed research has found adding bacteria to spills does little compared with simple fertilization, this research is not entirely up to date. Sarva Bio Remed, for one, would welcome scrutiny, said Dinkar Ganti, the company's vice president of operations.
"We would certainly welcome a technical debate where we compared results," Ganti said. "There has to be a technical basis for our statements, and we welcome that."
Far from the spotlight, that debate has raged for decades. Bioaugmentation has long been the most controversial branch of bioremediation, a still-young field that seeks to harness natural bacterial and ecological processes to clean up environmental contamination. And in some applications, "bioaugmentation has been really successful," said Jim Spain, a bioengineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Foreign microbes have proven successful in cleaning up exotic chemicals cooked up in laboratories that do not typically exist in the wild. Without this exposure, bacteria have not evolved the ability to break apart the compounds. This void has left bioaugmentation as a viable option for degrading solvents like dioxin, for example, and is one reason why the Superfund program and Energy Department have been important sponsors of augmentation research.
Indeed, bioaugmentation's failure to treat oil has been a deep disappointment to scientists, who would favor the approach if it had more promise. "I'm a proponent of bioremediation," said Grimes, who helped guide DOE's bioremediation research in the 1990s. "But it's been a very difficult process to apply successfully with great results."
Of course, Grimes added, much more will be gleaned about treating spills in the next few years.
"It's an unfortunate learning opportunity," he said. "But if we don't learn from it, shame on us."
Spraying microbes in open water
While bioaugmentation's roots stretch back to the 1960s -- bacteria cleaned up the bilge water of the Queen Mary -- the industry's current incarnation stems from tanker spills two decades old: the Exxon Valdez and the largely forgotten Mega Borg incident. The latter, in particular, has provided MicroSorb's founding story.
The Mega Borg, a Norwegian tanker, exploded 60 miles off the Texas coast in 1990, ultimately spilling some 4 million gallons of light oil into the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the oil burned off as the ship was engulfed in progressive explosions and fires, splotches remained, and the state of Texas decided to spray MicroSorb's microbes on the open water, Baird said.
"We were able to treat oil in the open water," she said. "Literally, we have done this before. ... The state of Texas actually produced an entire video about our success on the tanker, and the company originally formed as a way to bring this product to market."
The Mega Borg footage remains one of the most prominent points used by MicroSorb in arguing for its microbial mix, which has remained unchanged in formula over the past 20 years. (The mix was originally compiled by the late Carl Oppenheimer, a marine microbiologist and oceanographer.) No peer-review studies were conducted of the operation, and government scientists say the dispersal of the oil is easily attributed to waves and the detergent-like properties of MicroSorb's product.
In fact, it would be foolish to add microbes into open ocean waters, an option marketed by several companies.
"Bioaugmentation in the Gulf of Mexico would be waste of time," Canada's Lee said. Even if the foreign bacteria were better-suited for the job, the ocean is too large and the currents unpredictable. "You just can't contain anything that's introduced," Grimes said.
Similar strategies were used during the Exxon Valdez spill, wrote Atlas, who in those days had the job of judging products brought as possible solutions to the oil in Prince William Sound. Some of those products included clay-encased bacteria similar to MicroSorb's product. The clay would cause oil to sink, but there was no evidence that the introduced bacteria outcompeted indigenous oil degraders, he said.
But much of this research was done in the 1990s, companies say. "We're overcoming a lot of obstacles," said Don Damschen, environmental project manager at BioWorld Products, which sells a bacteria-nutrient mix. "People say they've tried bioremediation," but for them that often means just adding a few microbes, he said. "We've gone way past that in the technology."
Some firms are more modest. Sarva Bio Remed, which combines dispersants with its bacteria, simply says it wants a chance to prove its product, according to Ganti, Sarva's vice president.
"We are not claiming we can solve [the spill]," he said. "But we are looking for ... a reasonable-size marshland so we can compare how our product works."
It does seem that on Gulf shorelines, bioaugmentation would hold higher promise -- after all the oil, caked onto rocks or seeping into beaches, will mostly stay in place. But in field tests and trials of "opportunity" -- spills -- adding microbes has still been found wanting, scientists say, largely thanks to the fact that it is far more effective to stimulate the growth of native bacteria by adding fertilizer.
It is likely that biostimulation will be applied in the Gulf, once BP and the government have successfully plugged the out-of-control well, Lee said. And when evaluating how to treat the marshlands, they will largely depend on studies conducted by Lee in Canada over the past decade, which form the basis for EPA's oil spill guidelines.
Lee is one of the rare researchers who has actually received permission to conduct experimental oil spills. He has done it twice, once in freshwater along the St. Lawrence River, and the second time in a salt marsh and beach on Nova Scotia. The studies probed many possible treatments: adding nutrients; adding commercial bacteria; tilling to increase oxygen circulation; and simply leaving the marsh alone, letting the waves and bacteria do their work.
In the end, Lee's team concluded, it is often best to leave the marsh alone. Tilling caused massive amounts of erosion. For sandy beaches and rocky shorelines, they found that adding nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate could definitely spur microbial degradation, as long as the oil had not penetrated deep into sediment, where lack of oxygen slows any natural decay.
While it may sound tedious, responding to the spill will really operate on a case-by-case basis, Lee said. "First you have to understand what the situation is in the marshes," he said, whether the oil is superficial or deeply mixed, and what plants are growing. There will be no quick fix for the oil, he said, but the native bacteria will eventually do their work.
"This is not the first time the Gulf of Mexico has seen a large amount of oil in its system," he said.
Despite the scientific skepticism, MicroSorb's Baird remains confident that her company, through its tireless petitioning to state officials and lawmakers in Washington, will win business in the Gulf. "We've had some dialogues with BP," she said, "and we remain very optimistic that we're going to be utilized to clean up the Gulf. So much so that we've ramped up production."
"This should really be taken seriously," Baird said, "and the fact that it's not is a real problem."