Oil Tanker accidents as a Source of Food

Researchers Decode Genes of Oil-Degrading Bacteria

Oil tanker accidents can result in the release of huge amounts of crude spill into the sea which causes serious ecological and economic damage. Despite the hazard they represent for higher organisms, they constitute "breakfast, lunch and dinner" to oil-eating bacteria. Such bacteria that feed off crude oil, which also emanates from natural seeps from oil fields, have found themselves an energy-rich food source and, in the process, help clean up contaminated environments.



Together with colleagues from Spain, Italy and the University of Bielefeld, researchers in Braunschweig have, for the first time, decoded the genome of the most important of these oil-degrading microorganisms, Alcanivorax borkumensis. The scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research and their colleagues have now published their findings in the journal Nature Biotechnology. They anticipate that understanding the biochemistry of Alcanivorax borkumensis will help in the development of new, effective and environmentally-friendly methods to clean up oil-contaminated bodies of water.



"Alcanivorax borkumensis is capable of living exclusively off the hydrocarbons present in crude oil," explains Dr. Vitor Martins dos Santos, one of the scientists involved in the project at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research. "Now that we have sequenced the genetic material, we can discover how the bacteria manage this feat." - "We already know of a number of marine oil-degrading bacteria," says Dr. Peter Golyshin, the coordinator of this joint research project between partners like the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research, the University of Bielefeld and the Braunschweig Technical University. "However, several studies have shown that Alcanivorax borkumensis, which was discovered in Braunschweig, is one of the most important worldwide. And after the genome sequencing we know why: these bacteria produce a whole arsenal of very effective oil-degrading enzymes."



This could turn out to be a very important contribution to efforts to mitigate the ecological damage of oil spills. The biochemical tricks of these bacteria, embedded in the genes, could be used by humans to clean up marine pollution. But not only that: Alcanivorax borkumensis could also help scientists to better understand bacterial survival strategies. "Oil-degrading bacteria form so-called biofilms on the interface between oil and water," notes Prof. Kenneth Timmis, the head of the group at the Helmholtz Centre. "And since microbial biofilms are the principal lifestyle of both beneficial and disease-causing microbes on and in the human body, a deeper understanding of these processes will certainly benefit efforts to improve human health and control microbial infections."


Original article:

S. Schneiker, V.A.P Martins dos Santos, D. Bartels, Th. Bekel, M. Brecht, J. Buhrmester, T. N. Chernikova, R. Denaro, M. Ferrer, C. Gertler, A. Goesmann, O.V. Golyshina, F. Kaminski, A. Khachane, S. Lang, B. Linke, A. McHardy, F. Meyer, T.Y. Nechitaylo, A. Pühler, D. Regenhardt, O. Rupp, J.S. Sabirova, W. Selbitschka, M.M. Yakimov, K.N. Timmis, F.-J. Vorhölter, S. Weidner, O. Kaiser, P.N. Golyshin: Genome sequence of the ubiquitous hydrocarbon degrading marine bacterium Alcanivorax borkumensis sheds light on marine oil degradation. Nature Biotechnology, 2006.


Background: New name for the GBF

As of July 18, 2006, the German Research Centre for Biotechnology (GBF) in Braunschweig changed its name to "Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research". The new name underscores the main research thrust of the center and more clearly identifies its membership in the Helmholtz Association, Germany's largest scientific organization.


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