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Finding perfect community of oil-eating bacteria is key to environmental clean-up

By Krista Baliko Posted: April 22, 2016 6:00 a.m.

University of Regina researchers study oil-eating bacteria. (l-r) Dr. Andrew Cameron, Dr. Chris Yost, Danae Suchan, student, Dr. Britt Hall and Nicole Lerminiaux, student
University of Regina researchers study oil-eating bacteria. (l-r) Dr. Andrew Cameron, Dr. Chris Yost, Danae Suchan, student, Dr. Britt Hall and Nicole Lerminiaux, student Photo - U of R Photography.

Every year we celebrate Earth Day on April 22. This global initiative aims to bring awareness to environmental issues while celebrating exciting environmental innovations.

This year we are highlighting research at the University of Regina being fueled by the possibilities provided by oil-eating bacteria – tiny organisms that may sound like the villains in a new sci fi movie, but may actually prove to be the heroes.

Scientists on campus are discovering that these microscopic bacteria may reduce environmental damage caused by oil spills.

“The environment naturally breaks down the toxins in oil. Bacteria can take an oil molecule – such as a leak from a pipeline – and naturally degrade it into something non-toxic,” says Dr. Andrew Cameron, assistant professor in the Department of Biology.

As part of a research team in the Integrated Microbial Systems and Society laboratory in the Department of Biology, Cameron is working to understand how different microbial communities work together to break down oil and other contaminants.

Dr. Cameron, Dr. Britt Hall, Dr. Chris Yost and their students – are hoping to discover the perfect oil-eating microbial community. To do this they take DNA samples out of soil previously soaked in oil where the contaminants have been removed by bacteria and fungus.

The scientists then sequences the DNA to see which microbial species are present, what conditions they flourish in, and how these species interact.

This is an important aspect of research into bacterial-based oil clean-up, says Cameron.

“We’re looking beyond dumping a few species of microbes onto a spill. We’re looking at microbes in their natural communities to see if we can replicate the exact environmental factors that need to be present to ensure the oil-eaters can do their job properly.”  

Third-year biology major, Danae Suchan, is excited about the research contributions she is making.  

“These bio-remedial techniques have real-world applications that will positively impact the environment,” says Suchan.

Cameron says that while this research can help improve the clean-up process and reduce the impact of spills, it also provides important insights into the ecology of microscopic organisms.

Looking forward, the scientists are eager to expand their research to the potential of oil-eating microbial communities in water clean-up.

This research is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada's (NSERC) Engage Grants, the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award and the University’s Vice-President (Research) office.

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