UNAM studies Hydrocarbon Degrading Bacteria

Mexican scientists participate in massive study to identify and cultivate bacteria
Mexico City
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In order to identify bacteria capable of degrading oil that can be cultivated and used in oil spills, Liliana Pardo López, researcher at the Biotechnology Institute (IBt) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), performs a detailed research work at the Gulf of Mexico Research Consortium (GIGOM) – the joint effort of hundreds of scientists of several disciplines, from eight academic institutions of the country, including the UNAM.

“We obtain the bacteria from the sea, from deepwater, around three of four thousand meters deep. We depart on board the research ship Justo Sierra from this institute, and then we take samples from both, the bottom of the ocean (with a nucleator ) and of water,” explains Pardo.

After obtaining the samples in bottles, they store the sediment in liquid nitrogen (at -70°C) and the filtered water is taken back to the lab in small quantities to be frozen and to have its DNA extracted.

For this last process, the researcher and her team use two cutting-edge techniques: metagenomics (study of genetic material from environment samples) and metataxonomics (a wide study from organism classification).

“We want to identify all the bacteria living in the Gulf of Mexico, to know what we have in that area and identify which can degrade hydrocarbons, which are pathogens for the oceans, which can degrade plastics and which can increase or reduce global warming,” she said.

In particular, scientists are interested in those degrading hydrocarbons, considering the oil reform has broadened crude oil explorations in Mexican seas, and there are risks of leaks and spills. “They are useful for contingency plans, which is the biggest project financed by the Secretariat of Energy (SE) and the National Council on Science and Technology (CONACYT).

When there's an oil spill at sea, certain bacteria start to eat it. “It's amazing that they have the ability to degrade this hydrocarbon until its mineralization stage, that is, when in transforms into water and carbon dioxide. This is why they have such an important biotechnological potential, since these are magnificent biological factories.”

Natural Degradation

The IBt reseach mentioned they pretend to know the name and last name of everything in the Gulf of Mexico, “which is why we use metagenomics, because only 1% of bacteria can be cultivated.”

Pardo López explains the water is filtered from the sample, and the filters gather the DNA: “We extract it and purify it at the lab, and then we do a massive sequencing. That is how we obtain all the information from the genetic material.

This sequencing provides millions of readings; the scientists reconstruct them and obtain results from hundreds of thousands of different bacteria. The resistant ones are cultivated in the lab and further studied. “In addition to creating basic science, we are interested in applying the bacteria abilities to bio-remedy the affected area, in water and soil.”

Study of the Gulf of Mexico

The CIGOM is a scientific project that aims to use physical, chemical and biological measurements to establish a baseline of the current state and natural variability of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

It also aims to generate and use cutting-edge technologies to observe the ocean continuously, and employ them (together with numerical models) in case of a spill, in order to calculate its dispersion and possible consequences.

Another objective is to build physical, biogeochemical and transportation models of hydrocarbons to create risk maps, arrival times and impact estimates efficiently, considering the chemical characteristics of hydrocarbons, in addition to position and depth of possible spills.

In this multi-institutional consortium, the UNAM participates with five academic organizations: the Atmospehric Science Center (CCA), the Nanosciences and Nanotechnology Center (CnyN), the Biotechnology Institute (IBt), Geopgysics Institute (IGf) and the Institute of Ocean Sciences and Limnology (ICMyL).

Among the collaboratos there are also two CONACYT centers: the Center for Engineering and Industrial Development, and the Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education in Baja California; the Research and Higher Education Center of Merida, of the National Polytechnic Institute; the National Institute for Ecology and Climate Change; the Autonomous University of Baja California; the Autonomous University of Morelos; and the company BajaInnova SAPI de C.V.


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