Petroleum bioremediation - a multiphase problem

Eugene Rosenberg*, Rachel Legmann, Ariel Kushmaro, Ran Taube, Ellik Adler, Eliora Z. Ron

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microbial degradation of hydrocarbons is a multiphase reaction, involving oxygen gas, water-insoluble hydrocarbons, water, dissolved salts and microorganisms. The fact that the first step in hydrocarbon catabolism involves a membrane-bound oxygenase makes it essential for microorganisms to come into direct contact with the hydrocarbon substrate. Growth then proceeds on the hydrocarbon/water interface. Bacteria have developed two general strategies for enhancing contact with water-insoluble hydrocarbons: specific adhesion mechanisms and production of extracellular emulsifying agents. Since petroleum is a complex mixture of many different classes of hydrocarbons, of which any particular microorganism has the potential to degrade only part, it follows that the microorganisms must also have a mechanism for desorbing from used' oil droplets. The major limitations in bioremediation of hydrocarbon-contaminated water and soil is available sources of nitrogen and phosphorus. The usual sources of these materials, e.g. ammonium sulfate and phosphate salts, have a high water solubility which reduces their effectiveness in open systems because of rapid dilution. We have attempted to overcome this problem by the use of a new controlled-release, hydrophobic fertilizer, F-1, which is a modified urea-formaldehyde polymer containing 18% N and 10% P as P2O5. Microorganisms were obtained by enrichment culture that could grow on crude oil as the carbon and energy source and F-1 as the nitrogen and phosphorus source. The microorganisms and the F-1 adhered to the oil/water interface, as observed microscopically and by the fact that degradation proceeded even when the water phase was removed and replaced seven times with unsupplemented water - a simulated open system. Strains which can use F-1 contain a cell-bound, inducible enzyme which depolymerizes F-1. After optimizing conditions in the laboratory for the use of F-1 and the selected bacteria for degrading crude oil, a field trial was performed on an oil contaminated sandy beach between Haifa and Acre, Israel, in the summer of 1992. The sand was treated with 5 g F-1 per kg sand and inoculated with the selected bacteria; the plot was watered with sea water and plowed daily. After 28 days the average hydrocarbon content of the sand decreased from 5.1 mg per g sand to 0.6 mg per g sand. Overall, there was an approx. 86% degradation of pentane extractables as demonstrated by dry weight, I.R. and GLC analyses. An untreated control plot showed only a 15% decrease in hydrocarbons. During the winter of 1992, the entire beach (approx. 200 tons of crude oil) was cleaned using the F-1 bacteria technology. The rate of degradation was 0.06 mg g-1 sand day-1 (10°C) compared to 0.13 mg g-1 sand day-1 during the summer (25°C).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)337-350
Number of pages14
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Jun 1992


  • bioemulsifiers
  • bioremediation
  • hydrocarbon pollution
  • petroleum
  • petroleum microbiology


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