Mauritius Oil Spill Worsens as Beached Ship Breaks in Half

forward section of vessel breaks off after striking a coral reef three weeks ago

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A Japanese ship that spilled oil in the sea around Mauritius has split in two, Reuters reported Saturday. The vessel has been stuck off the coast of the East African nation since a collision on July 25. Biotechnology may be a solution to this disaster.

Lab concept, scientist looking through microscope
Scientists are finding cleanup solutions to pollution in soil, air, and water through bioremediation, the use of bacterial microbes to break down pollutants into non-toxic substances. Photo By Rachaphak / Shutterstock

According to Reuters, the small island nation of Mauritius, located east of Madagascar, stands at the center of a catastrophe for its local wildlife.

“A Japanese bulk carrier that ran aground on a reef in Mauritius last month threatening a marine ecological disaster around the Indian Ocean island has broken apart,” the article said.

“The condition of the MV Wakashio was worsening early on Saturday and it split by the afternoon,” the Mauritius National Crisis Committee said. “The vessel struck a coral reef on July 25, spilling about 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil and endangering corals, fish, and other marine life in what some scientists have called the country’s worst ecological disaster.”

The field of biotechnology has provided humanity with new tools of using bacteria to resolve cleanup problems related to landmines, toxic waste, and pollution. How can we implement biotechnology in aiding us with oil spills?

Bacteria: Earth’s Tiniest Friends?

In our daily lives, we’re most accustomed to bacteria as being the source of health problems. Whether we’re diagnosed with strep throat, tuberculosis, or gonorrhea, bacteria are usually unwelcome guests. However, scientists are learning how to put bacteria to use for us.

“Bacteria and plants can be given, or have, genes that remove pollutants,” said Dr. David Sadava, Adjunct Professor of Cancer Cell Biology at the City of Hope Medical Center. “So in addition to being nature’s recyclers, bacteria break down many human-made pollutants.”

An experiment helps prove this bacterial trait. Dr. Sadava said we can take soil with water and add a pollutant, like oil, and see if any of it gets broken down. The bacteria that live in the presence of the pollutant and break it down are in fact thriving off it, so we can isolate those bacteria as organisms that can consume and break down pollutants.

“For example, there were bacteria that were isolated first from soil—we could add oil to them and see where the bacteria would thrive—that were essentially isolated on each component of oil by a scientist named Ananda Chakrabarty in the 1970s,” Dr. Sadava said.

“What Chakrabarty did was contaminate soils separately with all the different major components of crude oil—and there were about a dozen of them. So he’d take component number one, and chemical number one, and see whether there were bacteria in the soil that would eat it—and then component number two and component number three.”

Dr. Chakrabarty then performed bacterial genetics to mate the pollutant-eating bacteria into a single “super-bug” that would eat multiple components of oil.

An Unappetizing Smorgasbord

In 1980, Dr. Chakrabarty was awarded a patent for his pollutant-eating super-bug. Nine years later, an ecological disaster similar to the Mauritius oil spill made headlines—and put Chakrabarty’s creation to the test.

“In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground near the Alaskan shore, releasing 11 million gallons of crude oil over 1,000 miles of shoreline,” Dr. Sadava said. “Cleanup by physical methods such as skimming the water and spraying the rocky shore with detergents was used first, and the result dispersed about two-thirds of the oil. Bacteria did the rest through bioremediation.”

According to Dr. Sadava, nitrogen and phosphorus salts were first sprayed along the shoreline to help the bacteria thrive, then the genetically engineered bacteria and other bacterial strains were added to consume the remaining oil spilled by the Valdez.

Cleanup methods for the Mauritius oil spill have yet to be finalized, but officials may find help from unlikely microbial allies.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. David Sadava, Ph.D.

Dr. David Sadava is Adjunct Professor of Cancer Cell Biology at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, CA, and the Pritzker Family Foundation Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at The Claremont Colleges. Professor Sadava graduated from Carleton University as the science medalist with a BS with first-class honors in biology and chemistry. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow, he earned a PhD in Biology from the University of California, San Diego.