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Beastly bacteria on extinct ancient carcasses offers 'cure' for modern oil pollution

By Vera Salnitskaya
25 November 2015

Permafrost remains of long-gone woolly rhinos, mammoths and cave lions bring intriguing scientific breakthrough.

Larisa Yerofeevskaya, research fellow at the Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, in regional capital Yakutsk. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

A bacterial bonanza from frozen paleontological remains of these vanished creatures has unearthed hydrocarbon-oxidizing microorganisms capable of decomposing oil components into water and carbon dioxide.

The finds give the potential to develop bacteria cocktails which could clean-up pollution caused by oil, related products and fats, say scientists in Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic.

The discoveries come from analysis on recent finds of extinct animals whose remains were 'frozen in time' by permafrost, said Larisa Yerofeevskaya, research fellow at the Institute of Oil and Gas Problems, in regional capital Yakutsk.

'From the woolly rhinoceros, we have already identified one microorganism that destroys cellulose and a hydrocarbon oxidizing bacteria,' she told The Siberian Times. 'From cave lions, we identified a very large number of bacteria, but so far four strains, all hydrocarbon oxidizing. We identified bacteria in the mouth of one cub, and in the anus of the second one, probably paleontological microorganisms' - in other words ancient bacteria that existed with the cave lions, which died at least 12,000 years ago.

Cave lion cubs bacteria


Cave lion cubs bacteria


Bacteria destroys oil

Our pictures show how the anciet bacteria literally appears to eat the oil, in comprainson with the pure oil sample. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

This picture shows how the ancient cave lion cub bacteria literally appears to eat the oil. The woolly rhino carcass also hosted 'ammonifying organisms that break down the protein of plant and animal origin'.

The cave lions and woolly rhino are very recent finds, but earlier research on the Oimyakon mammoth trunk - found in 2004 - also  identified hydrocarbon-oxidizing bacteria. See here and here our stories on the discovery of the remains of the extinct beasts.

Ms Yerofeevskaya said scientists initially found it 'very surprising' that the could locate such bacteria in the remains of the extinct animals. 'According to our data, this kind of bacteria is only found in oil-contaminated soils,' she said. 

Frozen cave lions


First pictures of remains at least 10,000 years old  found in Siberia's Sakha Republic

Useful bacteria were obtained from paleontological finds, such as frozen cave lion cubs and woolly rhioceros. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya, Academy of Sciences Republic of Sakha 

'But now I think that since oil is the product of a reaction during the decomposition of the remains of flora and fauna, why should it not then be in a biomaterial of ancient animals especially when they are in contact with the soil?'

She said: 'These microorganisms can be used for the manufacture of biological products for the oil spills liquidation, and oil-polluted soil and water. Microorganisms decompose oil components to water and carbon dioxide, and microbial protein which is safe and processed by other bacteria located in the substrate.'

Cave lion cubs bacteria probes


Cave lion cubs bacteria probes


Cave lion cubs bacteria

We identified bacteria in the mouth of one cub, and in the anus of the second one, probably paleontological microorganisms.' Pictures: Larisa Yerofeevskaya, Vera Salnitskaya

Her team have gathered bacteria from water, permafrost soil, and ice sediments as well as extinct animal remains. 

'After 24-to-72 hours the decomposition of oil begins. It turns to strands or granules. Even oily slicks disappear. What remains are protein, water and carbon dioxide, which evaporates.'

There is strong potential for use in fighting pollution, she said, and the bacteria found by her team are capable of thriving in cold Siberian temperatures, and in a climate which only has a short summer.

'If we manage to create a consortium of organisms - ammonifying, cellulolytic bacteria, hydrocarbon oxidizing microorganisms, this can be used for the recycling of landfills,' she explained.

'Ammonifying bacteria will decompose animal and plant protein, and the other bacteria will decompose cellulose. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria will deal with oil, oil products and fats. The ideal would be the picture when we pour such a combined preparation on a landfill and in a few years no trace remains. I think it is possible.'

Ancient bacteria


Ancient bacteria


Ancient bacteria


Ancient bacteria


Ancient bacteria


Ancient bacteria

'If we manage to create a consortium of organisms - ammonifying, cellulolytic bacteria, hydrocarbon oxidizing microorganisms, this can be used for the recycling of landfills.' Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

She sees an application for such a cocktail especially in Yakutia, the largest and coldest constituent part of the Russian Federation.

'In the past five years we have had 186 accidents associated with oil spills,' she said. 'The largest spill was in 2001, it was the flooding in the city of Lensk, when the oil tanks were just swept away,' she said, stressing the need for action to save the environment. There's still oil in the water, and it appears out of the soil along the river banks.

'There was a large spill was on the Talakan-Vitim pipeline. According to official figures 450 cubic metres of oil was spilled. We have monitored this facility since 2007 and there is still oil. The lake died out there, the sediments are black. Oil is still floating. Oil fell into Lake Taloye, the Bezymyannyi stream and Peleduy River, from where people take drinking water. Fish here still smells of oil.'

Oil spill probes


Oil spills Yakutia


Oil spill in Yakutia

'In the past five years we have had 186 accidents associated with oil spills.' Pictures: Larisa Yerofeevskaya, SakhaNews, Government of Sakha Republic

Existing methods for cleaning up oil spills - such as removing polluted soil or deploying sorbents - are expensive and not necessarily effective, she said, suggesting the future is with bacterial solutions.

'For us it is important that bacteria can decompose oil and petroleum products in reduced temperatures, at least at 4C,' she said. 'The soil here doesn't warm up. We have one hot month - July. At this time, the top layer can warm at  the depth of five centimetres up to 14C. At 10 cm, the temperature is 4C. At 20 cm it is permafrost.'

Bacteria from other places needs time to acclimatise by which time the temperature is sinking, she said. Her institute is part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Comments (1)

This discovery sounds to be very promising, not just for Russia, but in other parts of the World where pollution by Oil has had devastating consequences on the natural environment.
Simon Robinson, Blackburn, England
29/11/2015 16:26
9
1
1

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