December 15, 2010
Bacteria can live on almost anything – some even on oil. Friedrich Widdel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, is studying microbes that break down oil hydrocarbons without oxygen, deep down in the sediment. Could they be useful in oil spills?
Text: Tim Schröder
They may not look like much, aesthetically speaking,” says Friedrich Widdel, placing some black and white photos on the table. One photo shows a heap of thin black bars, another contains small grey blobs. Physically, the bacteria do not appear to be much more than an abstract, milling mass. To Widdel, however, they are so interesting that he has spent over 30 years studying them. “Their metabolism is truly fascinating. The bacteria can do things that more highly developed life forms are unable to do.”
Indeed, some of them have real hidden talents: they can degrade substances that are indigestible for animals and people (such as cellulose), or that are toxic, such as hydrogen sulfide. The organisms absorb nitrogen from the air and make it available to plants. No one knows how many types of bacteria there are, and it is quite likely that most of them have yet to be discovered. There is probably no place on Earth where some form of bacteria doesn’t feel right at home. The singlecelled organisms colonize soils, tombs, waste treatment plants, hot vents at the bottom of the ocean and even the Arctic sea ice. Many billions of these microscopic creatures romp around in and on our bodies, in the digestive system or on our skin. This is a good thing, as microbes improve our defenses and provide us with essential substances.
Friedrich Widdel is interested mainly in the specialized bacteria that survive in the complete absence of oxygen – the “anaerobes,” which take in sulfur or nitrogen compounds from their surrounding environment in order to breathe. The scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen are particularly fascinated by the oil-degrading bacterial strains that thrive in exotic habitats: underneath oil slicks on the shoreline or in anoxic oil sediment on the seafloor.