Petroleum biodegradation in marine environments

J Mol Microbiol Biotechnol. 1999 Aug;1(1):63-70.


Petroleum-based products are the major source of energy for industry and daily life. Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products such as plastics, paints, and cosmetics. The transport of petroleum across the world is frequent, and the amounts of petroleum stocks in developed countries are enormous. Consequently, the potential for oil spills is significant, and research on the fate of petroleum in a marine environment is important to evaluate the environmental threat of oil spills, and to develop biotechnology to cope with them. Crude oil is constituted from thousands of components which are separated into saturates, aromatics, resins and asphaltenes. Upon discharge into the sea, crude oil is subjected to weathering, the process caused by the combined effects of physical, chemical and biological modification. Saturates, especially those of smaller molecular weight, are readily biodegraded in marine environments. Aromatics with one, two or three aromatic rings are also efficiently biodegraded; however, those with four or more aromatic ring are quite resistant to biodegradation. The asphaltene and resin fractions contain higher molecular weight compounds whose chemical structures have not yet been resolved. The biodegradability of these compounds is not yet known. It is known that the concentrations of available nitrogen and phosphorus in seawater limit the growth and activities of hydrocarbon-degrading microorganisms in a marine environment. In other words, the addition of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers to an oil-contaminated marine environment can stimulate the biodegradation of spilled oil. This notion was confirmed in the large-scale operation for bioremediation after the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Many microorganisms capable of degrading petroleum components have been isolated. However, few of them seem to be important for petroleum biodegradation in natural environments. One group of bacteria belonging to the genus Alcanivorax does become predominant in an oil-contaminated marine environment, especially when nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers are added to stimulate the growth of endogenous microorganisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Forecasting
  • Gram-Negative Bacteria / metabolism
  • Petroleum / metabolism*
  • Seawater
  • Water Microbiology*


  • Petroleum