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Researchers from the Berkeley Lab collect samples from around the damaged BP wellhead.
The results in the Gulf of Mexico are typical of what Hazen has seen at some other spill sites. The bugs adapt and even develop a memory for foreign compounds like oil, enabling them to react quickly when these compounds suddenly become present.

In recent years, Hazen, who oversees a sprawling empire of projects as head of the Berkeley Lab’s ecology department, has teamed up with the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) to study microbial-enhanced hydrocarbon recovery. (That association caused some controversy when he reported his Deepwater findings, as the EBI — a partnership between the Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois — is funded by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP. Hazen notes he was only one of more than 30 authors on the Deepwater report and dismisses any suggestion that he’s somehow beholden to BP or any of the oil companies.) The idea of the hydrocarbon recovery project is to use microbes to extract oil from ground reserves by transforming it into a more liquid form or changing it into hydrogen or methane. If it works, microbes could reduce or even eliminate the environmental damage caused by controversial extraction processes, such as the use of chemicals to fracture underground formations.

Estimates suggest that less than 20 percent of the oil reserves in a typical underground reservoir are currently extracted. Proponents say microbially enhanced recovery could increase that number by 5 to 10 percent. To that end, Hazen has begun projects in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and Colorado, looking in oil reservoirs for microbes that will do the job.

Early in his career, Hazen, who grew up 40 miles from the nearest town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was interested in how microbes survived difficult conditions and caused disease in animals. He investigated the parasite that causes “red sore” disease in fish while earning his doctorate at Wake Forest University. He first began looking at minor oil spills around a tanker loading area at a refinery when he was working as the director of graduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico in the early 1980s. “I was gradually becoming more and more interested not in what microorganisms in the environment could do to you, but what they could do for you,” he says.

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When Hazen moved to the Savannah River National Laboratory in 1987, he focused on identifying microbes deep in the river’s subsurface, pioneering the field of microbial ecology. Hazen prefers field studies to lab work because he wants to understand which bugs do what in what kinds of conditions — a process he calls “monitored bioremediation.” Understanding which bugs to encourage and how is something Hazen has honed over the past 30 years.

“The work does require you know quite a bit about bugs and about the geology and the geochemistry, and to be able to noodle that,” he says. “But [using microbes] is a much better way to handle [cleanup projects]. It will be a lot cheaper in the long run, and you can successfully do less and less aggressive treatment and less engineering as you go along.”

At the Savannah River Site, he oversaw the injection of methane and other nutrients into the ground through horizontal wells as part of a feasibility study to clean up an oil-seepage basin. In just a couple of months, the bugs had cleaned up one of the waste sites and no further action was necessary, he says.

“There’s no compound known to man, man-made or natural, that bacteria can’t degrade.”

Recently, Hazen has been working at the Hanford Site, a sprawling decommissioned nuclear-production site on the Columbia River in Washington. There, Hazen and his team found trillions of naturally occurring microbes in the soil with a particular skill: breaking down hexavalent chromium — a carcinogen made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich, which corroded storage tanks and contaminated 270 billion gallons of groundwater at the Hanford Site — into a harmless form of chromium that sticks to the soil and doesn’t leach into the nearby river, where its toxic form could damage salmon eggs and fry.

Hazen feels the advances of his team — and the effectiveness of the microbes’ work in various applications — prove that we should explore naturally occurring processes before we resort to man-made methods.

“Mother Nature has a tremendous capacity to clean herself,” he says.