Oil spills that release harmful petroleum hydrocarbons into the marine environment can be cleaned up in several ways. These include sponge-like sorbents that absorb oil, dispersants that chemically break down oil, and microorganisms that biologically degrade oil by consuming it as an energy source.
The latter process is known as biodegradation or bioremediation. The EU-funded 'Integrated biotechnological solutions for combating marine oil spills' (KILL.SPILL) project aims to find such viable solutions to oil spills using both established and novel methods.
While dispersing or collecting/skimming the oil is the first response following an oil spill, KILL.SPILL products are intended for longer-term actions across a range of conditions. Researchers have thus far advanced novel hydrocarbon-detecting biosensors that monitor the efficiency of oil-degrading bacterial communities, and development of bioremediation agents (biosurfacants for bio-based dispersants, microbial–chemical combinations for integrated bioremediation agents).
They have also isolated bacterial strains from marine, terrestrial and industrial environments to study their oil-degrading capabilities. Systems in development include bacteria adapted to the high pressures of deep-sea environment (in high pressure bioreactors), oil-degrading microorganisms with high tolerance to environmental stresses, and microbes that degrade oil in ocean floor sediments under anaerobic or aerobic conditions.
KILL.SPILL's versatile range of tools will cover gaps in current approaches to cleaning up oil spill disasters, with applications for first response, follow-up and monitoring. Further work will involve assessing the toxicity and impact of the products on the environment, and validating their efficiencies in a real oil spill scenario.