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Extremophilic microbes enable new methane pathways

By Mary Page Bailey |

Microbes inhabiting the extreme environments thousands of feet below the earth’s surface possess unique properties not encountered elsewhere. A research consortium of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT; Rapid City; www.sdsmt.edu), University of Oklahoma (Norman) and Montana State University (Bozeman) is investigating these novel microorganisms and their methane-oxidation behavior. The goal of the project is to manipulate the microbes to enhance their methane-uptake capabilities in order to produce value-added products, such as methanol and biopolymers like polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), as well as bioelectricity. These extreme-environment microorganisms exhibit much higher rates of methane oxidation than their counterparts from more traditional locations, says Rajesh Sani, SDSMT professor and lead researcher of the consortium.

Microbe

South Dakota School of Mines & Technology

“We have isolated several organisms from deep in the biosphere that were oxidizing methane underground. It was not previously known that they could do this,” he explains. This is the first-ever research project to investigate such microoganisms and their methods for methane regulation in extreme environments. Sani and his team are focused on genome editing the microbes so they can more effectively convert methane into valuable products. “A great deal of gene editing must be done to modify the genes to produce polymers,” Sani says. The genes can be engineered to create biopolymers with various properties from methane. Future work will include manipulating the microbes to create additional products from CH4 gas. The consortium is also collecting samples from deep biosphere locations in different regions of North America to compare the species’ diversity.

“I believe we will end up with a few different technologies,” says Sani of the potential to commercial these new methane-based processes. “We have a technology that can take advantage of inexpensive, abundant methane, and convert it into liquid fuels or biopolymers,” he continues. LanzaTech (Skokie, Ill.; www.lanzatech.com) has signed on as an industrial partner for this project.

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