At this point it's unclear how much of an environmental threat oil spreading from the BP spill will cause, but the federal government is mobilizing thousands of workers to prepare for the worst. They have a potential ally: microbes that have evolved an ability to break down oil that seeps from the ocean bottom. It gets devoured by a variety of bacteria, which eat it by chemically transforming its compounds into useful cellular constituents. "If it wasn't for the natural ability of bacteria to eat oil we would all be knee-deep in the stuff," says bioremediation expert Ken Lee of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, Canada.
So could bugs help cleanse the gulf? A number of companies have tried to create bacteria that could break down oil on demand, but Lee and colleague Albert Venosa of the Environmental Protection Agency say that experiments have shown that novel bacteria, even if they show promise in the lab, cannot compete with bacteria already living on beaches and marshes. Experiments have shown that adding nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to the beaches can speed up the ability of natural bacteria to break down oil. "What would've taken 5 or 6 years to accomplish can occur in a single summer," says Lee.