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Biological Agents / Microbial Products

Biological agents are chemicals or organisms that increase the rate at which natural biodegradation occurs. Biodegradation is a process by which microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and yeast break down complex compounds into simpler products to obtain energy and nutrients. Biodegradation of oil is a natural process that slowly - sometimes over the course of several years - removes oil from the aquatic environment, microbial bioremediation. However, rapid removal of spilled oil from shorelines and wetlands is necessary in order to minimize potential environmental damage to these sensitive habitats.

Microbial Bioremediation technologies can help biodegradation processes work faster. Bioremediation refers to the act of adding materials to the environment, such as fertilizers or microorganisms, that will increase the rate at which natural biodegradation occurs. Two bioremediation technologies that are currently being used in the United States for oil spill cleanups are fertilization and seeding.

Fertilization, also known as nutrient enrichment, is the method of adding nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to a contaminated environment to stimulate the growth of the microorganisms capable of biodegradation. Limited supplies of these nutrients in nature usually control the growth of native microorganism populations. When more nutrients are added, the native microorganism population can grow rapidly, potentially increasing the rate of biodegradation.

Seeding is the addition of microorganisms or microbial enzymes to the existing native oil-degrading population. Sometimes species of bacteria that do not naturally exist in an area will be added to the native population. As with fertilization, the purpose of seeding is to increase the population of microorganisms that can biodegrade the spilled oil.

For additional information on bioremediation, view the following documents:

Nation Response Team fact sheet on Bioremediation Technologies (PDF, 4 pp., 57 KB)
Guidelines for the Bioremediation of Marine Shorelines and Freshwater Wetlands (PDF, 163 pp., 1.3 MB)

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