Bacteria that changed the world: Alcanivorax

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

Alcanivorax borkumensis
– the oil-eaters

Where they live
Seas around the world are host to small numbers of Alcanivorax borkumensis. But if there is an oil spill, its numbers skyrocket, as the species feeds on crude oil.

Why they are important
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when the equivalent of 4.2 million barrels of oil gushed into the sea off Houston, Texas, Alcanivorax borkumensis unexpectedly helped reduce the environmental impact of the disaster.

How they are named
Alcanivorax borkumensis voraciously eats oil molecules called alkanes, giving the first part of the name. The second part recalls where scientists first spotted the species, around Borkum Island in the North Sea.

How they work
The species breaks down crude oil using a range of enzymes it produces naturally. It can consume a wider range of alkane molecules than other bacterial species, and so it becomes the dominant species in a contaminated area.

Top image: : Dr. Joanna Lecka, Tayssir Kadri, Prof. Satinder Kaur Brar (INRS)

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