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These microbes make a meal of methane/hydrogen mixtures

By Paul Grad |

Soil bacteria that oxidize methane (methanotrophs) are important in capturing methane before it enters the atmosphere. Now an international team has isolated and characterized methanotrophic bacteria — obtained from a New Zealand volcanic field — that can grow on CH4 or H2 separately, but perform best when both gases are present. The team obtained Methylacidiphilum sp.RTK17.1 bacteria from an acidic geothermal field in Rotokawa, New Zealand. The bacteria can rapidly oxidize CH4 and H2 simultaneously. Biochemical assays revealed that the bacteria use hydrogen as an electron donor for aerobic respiration and carbon fixation.

The team included staff from GNS Science (Taupo, New Zealand), Scion (Rotorua, New Zealand), University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand), University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Canada), Montana State University (Bozeman), CSIRO (Australian Capital Territory), and Monash University (Clayton, Australia; www.monash.edu). A member of the team, Monash University’s Chris Greening, says: “This study is significant because it shows that key consumers of methane emissions are also able to grow on inorganic compounds such as hydrogen. This new knowledge helps us reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The team focused on the metabolic strategies used by bacteria to survive and thrive in challenging environments. Methane is a challenging energy source to assimilate, and by being able to use hydrogen as well, the bacteria can thrive when methane and oxygen are no longer available. Many industrial processes release large amounts of CH4, CO2, and H2 into the atmosphere. “By using these gas-guzzling bacteria, it is possible to convert these gases into useful liquid fuels and feeds instead,” Greening says.

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