TAU claims it can ‘bioremediate’ remaining BP oil

Researchers identify a naturally occurring variety of sea-borne bacteria that digest oil.

By
September 11, 2010 23:38
4 minute read.
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill floats on the

Gulf oil spill. (photo credit: AP)

 
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It took seconds last April for the largest marine oil spill in history – the BP drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico – to occur, but it will take a very long time and billions of dollars to clean up. Tel Aviv University claims it has a solution that may help “bioremediate” the remaining problems.

Prof. Eugene Rosenberg and Prof. Eliora Ron of the department of molecular microbiology and biotechnology are using naturally occurring oil-munching bacteria, grown at the TAU lab, to clean hard-to-reach oil pockets. These form when oil mixes with sand and organic matter on beaches and forms a thin layer on the water.

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“It has worked to clean up an oil spill on the coast of Haifa, so we’ve already got good evidence it could work in Florida too,” says Ron.

The researchers identified a naturally occurring variety of sea-borne bacteria that digest oil. By studying the bacteria’s genetic background, developing methods of growing it and increasing its capacity to ingest the oil, the scientists have developed a solution that could clean up residual oil that can’t be removed by mechanical means. Ron says that sucking up surface oil pools and containing the oil are important and necessary first steps. But her solution addresses the smaller amounts of oil which aren’t easily removed from sand and water.

It is this small percentage of oil that sits under rocks and forms a thin film on the water’s surface. Her bacterial solution, she maintains, can remove this oil.

“We see sad pictures of birds covered in oil and people with good intentions cleaning bird wings,” says Ron. “But by the time the oil is on their wings, it’s too late. Birds die because oil gets into their lungs.“The problem is huge, and even with just a little bit in your lungs, oil is bad. Even when cleanup crews reduce the amount of oil at sea, there will probably be enough left behind to kill birds and wildlife.” At this level of oil removal, the researcher says, the only solution is bioremediation – using nature itself to do the final cleanup.

NECTAR FOR DISCRIMINATING BEES Bees, it seems, have definite preferences in nectar. University of Haifa researchers have found that they are keen on nectar with small concentrations of nicotine and caffeine. For them, it’s “tastier” than plain nectar, according to researcher Prof. Ido Yitzhaki of the evolutionary and environmental biology department. The major component of nectar is sugar, which is the source of energy to potential pollinators. There are types of flowers whose nectar contains substances known to be toxic such as nicotine and caffeine. In the current study, the researchers wanted to know if these substances attract bees.



Nicotine appears naturally in tobacco plants at a concentration of 2.5 milligrams per liter, while caffeine is present mostly in citrus plants at a concentration of 11 to 17.5 milligrams per liter, but in grapefruits, the concentration is much higher – almost 95 milligrams. To get answers, the team exposed bees both to artificial nectar containing various concentrations of caffeine and nicotine and pure sugar nectar. It turns out that most bees are the equivalent of light coffee drinkers and smokers. The higher the concentration of these chemicals, the more likely they were to buzz instead to the natural nectar with only sugar.

It’s difficult to know whether these components evolved in nature to make pollination more efficient, said Yitzhaki, but the plants were chosen by natural selection because they had concentrations of these components that attracted bees.

The experiments proved that bees prefer some caffeine and nicotine; now they are starting to study whether bees become addicted to them.

POLLSTERS: WATCH THE BIRDY Could“tweets” on the Twitter social network serve as a gauge of public opinion? American researchers who analyzed a billion Twitter messages during 2008 and 2009 have found that sentiments expressed in the short postings were similar to those in opinion surveys.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania told UPI that the tweets sent during 2008 and 2009 yielded measures of consumer confidence and of presidential job approval similar to those of well-established polling services. That finding, the researchers said, suggests that analyzing the text found in streams of tweets could become a cheap, speedy barometer of public opinion on at least some subjects. The study was presented recently in Washington during the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.

Study head Prof. Noah Smith said the tools for extracting public opinion from social media text are still crude and social media remain in their infancy, meaning the extent to which such methods could replace or supplement traditional polling is still unknown.

“With seven million or more messages being tweeted each day, this data stream potentially allows us to take the temperature of the population very quickly,” Smith said.

“The results are ‘noisy,’ as are the results of polls. Pollsters have learned to compensate for these distortions, but we’re still trying to identify and understand the ‘noise’ in our data. Given that, I’m excited that we get any signal at all from social media that correlates with the polls.”

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