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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2003 Dec;67(4):503-49.

Recent advances in petroleum microbiology.

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Department of Biological Sciences, The University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia V2C 5N3.


Recent advances in molecular biology have extended our understanding of the metabolic processes related to microbial transformation of petroleum hydrocarbons. The physiological responses of microorganisms to the presence of hydrocarbons, including cell surface alterations and adaptive mechanisms for uptake and efflux of these substrates, have been characterized. New molecular techniques have enhanced our ability to investigate the dynamics of microbial communities in petroleum-impacted ecosystems. By establishing conditions which maximize rates and extents of microbial growth, hydrocarbon access, and transformation, highly accelerated and bioreactor-based petroleum waste degradation processes have been implemented. Biofilters capable of removing and biodegrading volatile petroleum contaminants in air streams with short substrate-microbe contact times (<60 s) are being used effectively. Microbes are being injected into partially spent petroleum reservoirs to enhance oil recovery. However, these microbial processes have not exhibited consistent and effective performance, primarily because of our inability to control conditions in the subsurface environment. Microbes may be exploited to break stable oilfield emulsions to produce pipeline quality oil. There is interest in replacing physical oil desulfurization processes with biodesulfurization methods through promotion of selective sulfur removal without degradation of associated carbon moieties. However, since microbes require an environment containing some water, a two-phase oil-water system must be established to optimize contact between the microbes and the hydrocarbon, and such an emulsion is not easily created with viscous crude oil. This challenge may be circumvented by application of the technology to more refined gasoline and diesel substrates, where aqueous-hydrocarbon emulsions are more easily generated. Molecular approaches are being used to broaden the substrate specificity and increase the rates and extents of desulfurization. Bacterial processes are being commercialized for removal of H(2)S and sulfoxides from petrochemical waste streams. Microbes also have potential for use in removal of nitrogen from crude oil leading to reduced nitric oxide emissions provided that technical problems similar to those experienced in biodesulfurization can be solved. Enzymes are being exploited to produce added-value products from petroleum substrates, and bacterial biosensors are being used to analyze petroleum-contaminated environments.

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