Bye-bye oil spills: prize winner unleashes plants and bacteria on pollution

Making microbes gobble up pollution and standing up for science – these are just some of the things that drive our October Researcher Prize winner. By the looks of it, Michael Eze must have cracked a secret energy efficiency formula. How else could one explain him working on a ‘dual PhD’, playing football and being a family man?

And he knows how to nurture his scientific capital too: our Sparrho Prize has got him to the annual convention of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, where he bagged the Carlos Walter M. Campos Memorial Award for Best International Student Paper.


As he explained in an interview with Sparrho, he wanted to use his Researcher Prize award money to present at “one of the greatest geoscience conferences in the world” in Houston, Texas. Why? To be able to connect with the top experts in the organic contaminants remediation field and with world-class institutions. Well, it looks like he has achieved his goal and more.

Michael, we’re proud of you!

Working on a PhD on two continents

I caught Michael, who hails from Nigeria, via Skype in his kitchen in the university town of Göttingen. His ‘dual degree PhD’ means he is spending part of his programme in Germany, while also doing more research somewhere that’s not exactly in the neighbourhood: Australia. Why the two locations? 

As Michael explains, his mission is to harness the symbiosis of plants and microbes using it to clean up toxic pollution on sea and on land. This is a cross-disciplinary effort, using his background in chemistry and is learning new things: 

“Currently, I’m researching plant-microbe symbionts for oil spills. It requires multi-disciplinary skills in geochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology and genomics. So, I’m spending half of my studies in Australia, dealing and the other half in Göttingen and will have to submit not one, but two theses for a ‘dual degree PhD’”.

Two theses? How do you cope with all this and living in two countries? 

It’s really challenging and time-consuming because in most cases, people who carry out a dual degree programme do so in the same discipline. But in my case, it’s in two: organic chemistry in Australia and applied microbiology and genomics in Germany.

I have to learn a lot of new skills, especially in microbial genomics. But I’m getting great support from the state-of-art facility in Germany and my wonderful supervisor!

Let’s talk about your actual research. It’s exciting to hear that you’re helping to clean up oil spills and other contamination using a plant-based technology. How does it work?

It works based on the existing symbiosis between plants and microbes. 

There is existing research that has shown how plants and microbes can benefit each other. Building on that we are trying to find plants that can tolerate hydrocarbons to a reasonable extent. And, we also look at microbes that can live in the rhizospheric zones of those plants...

Rhizo what?

The rhizospheric zone, the zone in the soil close to the roots. This is where we have nutrient enrichment, because the plant, through photosynthesis produces some sugars and releases them through the roots. So, the soil closest to the roots will be richer in nutrients, and that attracts microbes. 

We are looking at the microbes living there and trying to find out what they do, which one of them or combination of them possess the ability to degrade hydrocarbon and can team up with the plant to do it better. 

OK, and how does it work in practice? If there's an oil spill in the sea - what do you do? You can't just take a plant and stick its root into the oil spill, right? 

Microbes and plants work in tandem to clean oil spills

True! But we already have some plants in the sea, phytoplankton. They grow and live in the water or on the surface. So, we have these and at the same time the microbes that we have identified and have grown in the lab. We inject them into the sea and they will act together with the phytoplankton on the surface of the water. 

Another extension of the research involves the production of what we call biosurfactant. In this case, we don’t necessary inject the microbes directly into the sea but extract some enzymes from them. 

Those enzymes can break down hydrocarbons, so we call them biosurfactants. We can inject them into the sea as well and they can also work alongside plants on the surface of the water to remove hydrocarbon contamination. 

Great! But how does this microbe-plant team remove the contamination?  

The good thing about it is that the microbes eat up the carbon. The hydrocarbon is consumed for its energy. It does not accumulate in the microbes’ body, so there is no need to remove it. So, it's harmless to the environment. 

Amazing! You called this cooperation between plants and microbes ‘a masterpiece’ in your Researcher Prize submission. How soon will this become a widely-used solution? 

Well, it's still a work in progress. We believe that in the nearest future we will be able to complete development and patent the technology. And of course, beyond the research, the patenting and commercialisation demands a lot of money. So, while we are very optimistic about the success of this approach, we will rely on possible funding for the commercialisation of the biosurfactant. 

Can this be used for other types of contamination apart from oil spills in the sea? 

Yes, there are many other types of organic contamination where this can be used. I’m talking about wastewater, for example, that is being produced by manufacturing companies. A lot of wastewater is illegally dumped into the sea which affects the sea microbiome. The technology can be used to remediate or clean the wastewater in a tank or reservoir before releasing it into the sea. 

What about soil contamination? 

Medicago sativa

Of course. The primary approach is to clean oil contamination on land. The same principle works on land as in the sea. The only difference is that we need different plants to work with the microbes. We're examining plants that grow in most soils even in an extreme climate, for example, one of our primary plants is Medicago sativa. 

What made you research this topic? You're from Nigeria and in Nigeria, there's a major oil industry, right? Is this where your motivation came from? 

Yes, it's one of the motivating factors, however, my motivation goes back even earlier, maybe before the experience of oil spills in Nigeria. I remember back in high school I was interested in many things and I participated in a debate called “Science has done more harm than good”. 

Arguing for science, I presume? 

No, I was on the opposing side which argued that science has not done more harm than good. I believe it is the other way round but the points made by the opposite side opened my eyes to several negative effects of scientific innovations.

And it got me thinking that we need to conduct our science sustainably and safely. We need to cushion or remedy the bad effects because the Earth is our only home for now. 

So, did you become a scientist because of this high school debate? 

Yes, it's one of the reasons. But I was also interested in other things, for example, law studies out of a desire for a just society. However, the realisation of this role that science plays in innovating practical solutions to societal problems was what really turned me towards it. 

You talk about society… how do you explain your research to the wider public? After all, scientific language is not easy to understand for the ordinary person… 

Some of the friends really understand it. I think I've gotten a lot of congratulatory messages especially after I retweeted and reposted, Sparrho’s posts about my prize. Those congratulatory messages really made me feel so happy. 

I agree it’s a challenge trying to communicate one's research to a non-specialist audience. My major challenge is choosing the right non-technical terms and replace the jargon with them.

And I always think that if one cannot express themselves using words that can easily be understood, then this person will, in fact, be speaking into the air. 

Informally, I communicate with people around me, talk to friends about my research. And, when it comes to formal communication, I participated in the ‘3-min thesis’ competition and I won the departmental award in Australia. I was also runner-up in the faculty and participated in the university final. Also, last year I was among the finalists during the Falling Walls Lab competition in Australia. These experiences motivated me to do more science communication. 

OK. And when you talk to the public, there might be a lot of mistrust in the objectivity of research. If you had to go back to that debate in your high school how would you argue for science? 

Well, that is a good question. I think a study in science, especially at a doctoral level, has also opened my eyes more to a lot of damage caused by scientific innovations. 

But on the other hand, it has also helped me to see a lot of discoveries that benefit society today. For example, many lives would be more difficult if we removed all past scientific achievements or innovations. A lot of people had died because of certain diseases for which today we have a cure. 

And if it comes to communication for example, even though you are in the UK and I'm in Germany, we are talking and seeing each other because of scientific innovations. So, there are a lot of things that have made life easier and more enjoyable today due to science and I will still be on the side of science. 

 Let’s change the subject: one of the most important things in research is to publish in the right journals. Did you run into any kind of difficulties and do you think anything needs to be changed? 

This is a major concern because there is a slogan in the science community: 'publish or perish'. 

People see publishing as a way of moving their career forward. However, the challenge is that some high-quality journals demand high publication fees. For example, in 'Nature Communication' or in 'Nature Journals', you have to pay fees which at times amount to €4000. The same is true for other high impact journals.

And these are difficulties for students. Imagine a student on scholarship or being self-sponsored, it's not easy to have so much money. So, at times, high-quality research which is expected to be published in a high impact journal to be in the spotlight may end up in a lower quality journal because the researcher can’t meet the financial demands. 

How do young researchers come up with a sum like this? 

Well, sometimes the research group may have funds and some other it may not. And if you have to publish in high-impact journals you sometimes may need to contribute personally. Sometimes the authors have to share the fees among themselves. 

And how is your PhD life? Did you ever face obstacles during your research career? How did you overcome them? 

Yes, there are some challenges, really. As I mentioned earlier, my degree being a dual degree, the challenge is to learn skills, some of which are completely new to me. But luckily, I had some good supervisors who really helped me. 

Another challenge that most PhD students face which I also face sometimes, is when it comes to planning and executing one's research. It was Benjamin Franklin who supposedly said that if you fail to plan you are planning to fail - that is so true! 

But good planning is not enough. Living in a world with many distractions, one also needs strong personal discipline to stick to a schedule because time waits for no one. 

And finally, I tried to regularly take stock of my progress. There are some targets that I fell short of in the course of my research. When I noticed this, I tried to incorporate the lessons learned from non-achieved targets into plans and this has helped me to keep going. 

You mentioned distractions. What are those? What are your hobbies?  

I love playing football. I wish I could play more than I do currently. But because of the tight schedule of my research, it’s difficult to have all the time I need for relaxation. I also have a family, a wife and a son. So, my son is three and a half years old and this is an active period in his life. Wherever I come back, he wants me to read to him before he goes to bed or watch TV together so these are also ways I used to relax. Being happy with the family takes the pressure off!

Michael Eze received £500 to present at the AAPG 2020 Annual Convention and Exhibition in Houston, Texas, US. Read his submission here: "Plants and microbes unite to efficiently clean up oil spills".

Endre Szvetnik

by Endre Szvetnik

Endre Szvetnik is Senior Editor at Sparrho. Endre works with Sparrho Heroes to curate, translate and disseminate scientific research to the wider public.