Tue, 09 May 2000

Bacteria that decompose oil found

By Joko Sarwono

BOGOR, West Java (JP): Researchers of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) have discovered five species of bacteria that they say are capable of decomposing fossil oil.

The discovery raises hopes for combating the pollution caused by oilspills.

The bacteria consist of five species that the researchers have selected from hundreds of species living in the peatland of Central Kalimantan, an environment they call a "black water" ecosystem.

They identify the five bacteria as Pseudomonas stutzeri, Pseudomonas diminuta, Bacillus panthotenticus, Bacillus circulans and Klebsiella edwardsii.

Reports of the discovery were mentioned in the October 1999 issue of Jurnal Ilmu Tanah dan Lingkungan (Journal of Science on Soil and Environment) published by IPB.

Dr. Iswandi Anas, head of the Soil Biology Laboratory at the institute, says research has been conducted since 1996, coinciding with the implementation of the one million peat farm project in Central Kalimantan.

The research was done out of growing concern for the many cases of environmental pollution caused by oilspills.

"If crude oil spills out of a tanker, it will invariably pollute the sea and coastline and cause a lot of damage to the environment," he said.

He also said that oilspills happen on land as well, due to the leakage of pipelines, oil storage and accidents involving trucks carrying oil.

Crude oil, according to Iswandi Anas, contains a large quantity of phenol. The phenol compound is also found on peatland, especially in the black water ecosystem.

The ecosystem's name is derived from the color of water found in the peatland.

The ecosystem, he said, is unique. The phenol content is high. The compound is toxic and easily dissolves in water. "Organisms usually cannot live in an environment with a high phenol content. But there are organisms which can adapt themselves well and which even use phenol as their main source of energy," said Iswandi.

Apart from the high phenol content, he said, the acid level (pH) of the water on the peatland was low, about three. The effect of this is that only a limited number of organisms can live in the area.

"Organisms generally live at about 5-7 pH," he said.

The black water ecosystem is rare in our world. In Indonesia, it is found only in Central Kalimantan, Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra and Jambi.

"Because the ecosystem is rare, the organisms in it are often unique," he said.

Soil samples of the ecosystem were taken to find out what types of microorganisms could adapt themselves.

"We found hundreds of bacteria species in the soil samples," he said. "The bacteria species were separated and then cultured."

The selected bacteria were tested in soil mixed with crude oil and soil mixed with diesel oil. The microorganisms were able to decompose 48 percent of the crude oil and 64 percent of the diesel oil within 21 days.

"These results illustrate that the bacteria not only degrades phenol but natural oil, too. The other compounds of natural oil were also degraded," he said.

Mohamad Sri Saeni, an IPB environmental chemistry expert, says that following up of the discovery is urgent considering the frequent incidents of oilspills.

"People living in industrial areas and near oil storage facilities are particularly at risk," he says.

A recent survey in East Jakarta of industrial areas found that wells are often contaminated by oil waste.