MIAMI – One scientist compares them to the chompers in the Pac-Man video game — hungry, single-minded little microbes fueled by the same fertilizer farmers use on soybeans, gobbling hydrocarbons from the oily waters, marshes and shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

Can the naturally occurring microbes help clean up the oil spill? Yes, experts say. At least in part, with some risk.

Officials are taking note. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday visited a Sarasota company that sells microbes that eat oil. BP says it’s open to using them. And the federal government is contacting its pre-approved list of more than a dozen companies to see how quickly they can ramp up production.

Scientists call the process bioremediation.

“You take natural oil-eating microbes in the water and give them fertilizer to make them multiply and degrade the oil faster. Oil is a natural product. It’s inherently biodegradable,” said Terry Hazen, microbial ecologist in the Earth Sciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California.

Oil-eating microbes are some of the smallest living things on earth, but they can have a powerful impact. They occur naturally in water and when they come in contact with oil, they eat it, producing the byproducts carbon dioxide and water.

When fertilized with nitrogen and phosphorous, they grow in size and multiply and their appetites become prodigious.

Still, scientists caution that bioremediation is only a partial solution. It’s best used on sandy beaches and in salt marshes after the thickest oil has been removed by bulldozer and shovel. It’s never been tried before in deep water or open ocean.

And it runs some risk of damaging the very waters it’s meant to rescue. Some scientists say it may be better at times to let nature take its course.

BP says it’s looking into bioremediation. “Potentially we could do it, but we would need approval from the EPA,” spokesman Tristan Vanheganu said last week. “Typically it’s not done until the oil has stopped flowing.”