Bioremediation of Petroleum Hydrocarbons

Bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons

Bioremediation is an environmentally friendly and typically cost-effective method that utilizes natural biological processes to degrade harmful pollutants back into non-toxic elements. In the context of petroleum hydrocarbons, bioremediation leverages certain species of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes capable of breaking down these harmful compounds and converting them into less harmful substances. You can learn more about bioremediation in Bioremediation Explained.

Petroleum hydrocarbons are organic compounds primarily composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms. They are a major component of petroleum and natural gas, which are extensively used as energy sources worldwide. Unfortunately, due to oil spills, industrial discharges, and other accidents, these compounds often end up contaminating our environment, including soil and water bodies. These hydrocarbons are of significant environmental concern due to their toxicity, mutagenicity, and potential for bioaccumulation. Their presence in the environment can harm terrestrial and aquatic life and also pose a risk to human health. Thus, cleaning up environments contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons is a major focus in environmental remediation.

This is where bioremediation comes into play. Certain microbes, often bacteria or fungi, can use these hydrocarbons as a source of carbon and energy, breaking them down into simpler, less harmful compounds such as water and carbon dioxide. This process of degradation depends on the type of microorganisms, the type of hydrocarbon, the environmental conditions, and the presence of necessary nutrients. There are various Bioremediation Bacteria for Oil Spills.

Understanding Petroleum Hydrocarbons

Types of petroleum hydrocarbons

Understanding petroleum hydrocarbons

Petroleum hydrocarbons are compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen that are present in crude oil, coal, and natural gas. These compounds are typically categorized into four classes: paraffins, aromatics, asphaltenes, and resins. Due to widespread use and occasional spills of petroleum-based products, these compounds often end up in the environment, contaminating soil, groundwater, and surface water bodies. High concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons in the environment can be harmful to human health and wildlife.

Bioremediation of Petroleum Hydrocarbons

Bioremediation of Petroleum Hydrocarbons

In the context of petroleum hydrocarbon contamination, bioremediation is an attractive solution. A variety of microorganisms, including certain species of bacteria, fungi, and yeast, have the capability to degrade petroleum hydrocarbons. These organisms use hydrocarbons as a source of carbon and energy, converting them into simpler, non-toxic substances such as water and carbon dioxide.

The microorganisms accomplish this through a series of enzymatic reactions. They produce enzymes that break down the hydrocarbon molecules, a process that can take place in both oxygen-rich (aerobic) and oxygen-poor (anaerobic) environments.

Bioremediation can occur naturally, where indigenous microorganisms break down pollutants without human intervention. Following are the steps involved in the bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons:

  • Microbial Degradation: Bacteria, yeast, and fungi are the primary organisms used for bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons. These microorganisms have metabolic pathways that can degrade these hydrocarbons into smaller, less harmful molecules like carbon dioxide and water. For instance, bacteria from the genera Alcanivorax and Marinobacter are known for their oil-degrading capabilities and are often found in marine oil spills.

Microbial degradation of petroleum hydrocarbons

  • Bioaugmentation: This involves the addition of specific strains of bacteria or other microbes that are known to degrade petroleum hydrocarbons. These microbes can be naturally occurring or genetically modified to enhance their oil degradation abilities. The key to successful bioaugmentation is the use of microbial strains that are capable of degrading the specific pollutants present. In the case of petroleum hydrocarbons, these could be bacteria such as Pseudomonas, Alcanivorax, Rhodococcus, or fungi like Aspergillus and Penicillium.

Bioaugmentation of petroleum hydrocarbons

  • Biostimulation: This involves optimizing environmental conditions to enhance the activity of indigenous microbes capable of degrading petroleum hydrocarbons. These conditions may include aeration (oxygen is often required for microbial metabolism), adjustment of pH and temperature, the addition of electron donors (like organic acids or sugars) or electron acceptors (like nitrates or sulfates), surfactants, nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Biostimulation of petroleum hydrocarbons

  • Surfactant Enhanced Bioremediation (SEB): Surfactants are compounds that can increase the bioavailability of hydrophobic pollutants like petroleum hydrocarbons. Surfactants can be synthetic or biologically derived (biosurfactants). Synthetic surfactants include anionic, cationic, nonionic, and amphoteric surfactants. Biosurfactants are produced by certain types of bacteria and fungi and are preferred for environmental applications due to their lower toxicity and higher biodegradability compared to synthetic surfactants. By adding surfactants to the contaminated environment, it’s possible to increase the rate at which these pollutants are degraded by microbes.

Surfactants in bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons

  • Phytoremediation: This involves the use of plants to absorb or break down pollutants. A significant portion of petroleum hydrocarbon degradation is carried out by soil microbes such as bacteria and fungi, particularly those associated with the plant root system, known as the rhizosphere. Plants support these microbial communities by releasing root exudates, which provide nutrients for the microbes. There are several mechanisms by which plants and their associated microbes can help degrade petroleum hydrocarbons like rhizodegradation, phytoextraction, phytostabilization, phytoextraction, phytovolatilization, etc.

Phytoremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons

Types of Bioremediation of Petroleum Hydrocarbons

Types of bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons

Bioremediation strategies for petroleum hydrocarbons can be categorized into different types based on various parameters such as the location of treatment, the approach of the treatment, or the technology employed. Here are some of the common types:

In-Situ Bioremediation

This refers to the treatment of the contaminated material at the site. It often involves the introduction or stimulation of microbes that can degrade petroleum hydrocarbons. This can be achieved by optimizing conditions (like oxygen levels, nutrient levels, temperature, etc.) for the microbes to grow and function effectively. The benefits of in-situ bioremediation include less disruption to the environment since there is no need to excavate and transport the contaminated soil. However, it can be difficult to ensure that all contaminants are reached and removed. Some common in situ bioremediation techniques include:

  • Biostimulation: Biostimulation enhances the activity of indigenous microbes in petroleum-contaminated sites by adding nutrients or altering conditions to stimulate hydrocarbon degradation.
  • Bioventing: In this in situ technique, the air is circulated through contaminated soils to enhance the biodegradation of the pollutants by indigenous microorganisms.
  • Biosparging: This involves the injection of air below the water table to increase the biological activity of the native bacteria. The oxygen stimulates microbial growth, and the hydrocarbon contaminants are broken down more rapidly.

Ex Situ Bioremediation

This involves the removal of the contaminated material to be treated elsewhere, usually in a more controlled environment. Common techniques include landfarming, biopiling, and composting. These methods can provide more control over the remediation process but may involve additional costs and logistical issues associated with the transport of contaminated material.

Common ex-situ techniques include:

  • Landfarming: Spreading contaminated soil over a prepared bed and stimulating microbial activity through aeration and nutrient addition.
  • Biopiles: Similar to landfarming, soil is heaped into piles to allow for better oxygen diffusion.
  • Composting: Mixing contaminated soil with composting materials to enhance microbial activity.

Microbial Actions and Biodegradation Pathways

Microorganisms use petroleum hydrocarbons as a source of carbon and energy. Through their metabolism, they break down these complex molecules into simpler compounds. The rate of degradation can depend on many factors, including the type of microorganism, the type of hydrocarbon, the temperature, pH, the presence of oxygen and other nutrients, and the concentration of the hydrocarbon. The end products of the degradation process typically include carbon dioxide, water, and biomass.

Here’s a closer look at the microbial actions and biodegradation pathways involved:

  • Aerobic Degradation: Under aerobic conditions (in the presence of oxygen), microbes such as bacteria and fungi metabolize hydrocarbons via several enzymatic reactions. The first step in this process is typically the addition of oxygen to the hydrocarbon by oxygenase enzymes. This forms an alcohol, which is then further oxidized to a carbonyl compound. These compounds can then enter central metabolic pathways such as the Krebs cycle and be broken down into carbon dioxide and water, yielding energy that the microbes can use for growth and reproduction.
  • Anaerobic Degradation: In the absence of oxygen, some microbes can still degrade hydrocarbons, although the process is typically slower and less complete. Different types of bacteria can use nitrate, sulfate, or carbon dioxide as electron acceptors in the degradation process. For example, sulfate-reducing bacteria can oxidize hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide, with sulfate acting as the terminal electron acceptor and being reduced to hydrogen sulfide.
  • Aliphatic and Aromatic Hydrocarbons: Both aliphatic (straight-chain) and aromatic (ring-structured) hydrocarbons can be degraded by microbes, but the pathways and enzymes involved are different. Aliphatic hydrocarbons are typically degraded via terminal or subterminal oxidation, forming primary or secondary alcohols that are further oxidized to fatty acids. Aromatic hydrocarbons are often degraded via dioxygenase enzymes that incorporate two atoms of oxygen into the ring structure, breaking it open and forming dihydroxy compounds that can then be further metabolized.
  • Role of Biosurfactants: Some microbes produce biosurfactants, which are compounds that increase the bioavailability of hydrocarbons. This happens by reducing the surface tension between the hydrophobic hydrocarbon and the aqueous environment, allowing the hydrocarbon to more easily enter the cell and be metabolized.
  • Variations among Microbes: Different microbes have different hydrocarbon-degrading capabilities, depending on their specific enzymatic machinery. Some microbes, known as generalists, can degrade a wide range of hydrocarbons, while others, known as specialists, are more effective at degrading specific types of hydrocarbons.

Microbial Actions and Biodegradation Pathways in petroleum hydrocarbons

Enhancing Bioremediation

Enhancing the bioremediation of petroleum hydrocarbons involves strategies to increase the rate and extent of biodegradation by microbes. Here are some of the techniques and approaches commonly used:

  • Biostimulation: This involves adjusting the environmental conditions or adding nutrients to stimulate the growth and activity of indigenous hydrocarbon-degrading microbes. Commonly added nutrients include nitrogen and phosphorus. Providing adequate oxygen supply for aerobic microbes, or electron acceptors for anaerobic microbes, can also stimulate their activity.
  • Bioaugmentation: This involves adding specific strains or consortia of microbes that are known to be efficient at degrading petroleum hydrocarbons. The added microbes can boost the existing microbial community and increase the rate of biodegradation.
  • Use of Biosurfactants: Some microbes produce biosurfactants, which can increase the bioavailability of hydrophobic hydrocarbons by reducing their surface tension and allowing them to disperse in water. Adding biosurfactants or biosurfactant-producing microbes can enhance bioremediation.
  • Phytoremediation: Some plants, along with their associated microbes, can absorb, degrade, or facilitate the degradation of petroleum hydrocarbons. Plant roots can also help to aerate the soil and stimulate microbial activity.
  • Combined Approaches: Often, a combination of the above techniques may be used to enhance bioremediation. For example, biostimulation and bioaugmentation may be used together, or a combination of phytoremediation and biostimulation may be used.
  • Genetic and Metabolic Engineering: Advanced methods involve genetically modifying microbes to improve their hydrocarbon-degrading abilities or engineering their metabolic pathways to enable the degradation of specific types of hydrocarbons. This is a developing field and its application is mostly in the research phase as of now.


Despite the promise of bioremediation, challenges exist. The efficacy of bioremediation can be affected by several factors including the type and concentration of the hydrocarbon pollutant, temperature, pH, nutrient availability, and the presence of other toxic substances. Bioremediation is generally slower than other methods and may not be suitable for all sites, particularly those with high levels of contamination.

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