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Petroleum biodegradation and oil spill bioremediation

by Ronald M. Atlas
Marine Pollution Bulletin ()


Hydrocarbon-utilizing microorganisms are ubiquitously distributed in the marine environment following oil spills. These microorganisms naturally biodegrade numerous contaminating petroleum hydrocarbons, thereby cleansing the oceans of oil pollutants. Bioremediation, which is accomplished by adding exogenous microbial populations or stimulating indigenous ones, attempts to raise the rates of degradation found naturally to significantly higher rates. Seeding with oil degraders has not been demonstrated to be effective, but addition of nitrogenous fertilizers has been shown to increase rates of petroleum biodegradation. In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, the largest and most thoroughly studied application of bioremediation, the application of fertilizer (slow release or oleophilic) increased rates of biodegradation 3-5 times. Because of the patchiness of oil, an internally conserved compound, hopane, was critical for demonstrating the efficacy of bioremediation. Multiple regression models showed that the effectiveness of bioremediation depended upon the amount of nitrogen delivered, the concentration of oil, and time.

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