In an effort to improve sustainability practices, much research has gone into how energy resources can be both processed and produced in more environmentally friendly ways. One promising avenue has been in the discovery of microbes that can break down some components of natural gas, but until recently, only limited research into these organisms was possible. This is because the microbes known so far reproduce very slowly, which means that researchers have had a hard time growing enough to study in the laboratory setting. However, a new discovery from a group at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology may have changed all that.

The researchers found microbes that can break down ethane – one of the two main components of natural gas – 2000 meters undersea in the Gulf of California. Like previous such discoveries, this is not one type of microbe working on its own. Instead, it’s a pair of microbes processing the ethane together. One is a bacteria, and the other is an archaea, a simple single-celled organism typically found in extreme environments. The bacteria in this pair has already been known to play a role in these kinds of processes, but the archaea, dubbed Ethanoperedens thermophilum or “heat-loving ethane-eater,” is newly discovered. Unlike previous pairs, these grow quickly, which has enabled researchers to more fully understand the chemical processes taking place when they break down ethane.

In particular, researchers were able to discover that these pairs are not only capable of breaking ethane down, but can also reverse the process to produce it. This has exciting implications for how this microbe pair could be used in the future. Not only can these microbes break down ethane in the ocean so it won’t enter the atmosphere, they could also potentially help reduce carbon emissions in industrial processes.

Managing Correspondent: Isabella Grabski

Press Article: New ethane-munching microbes discovered at hot vents,

Original Scientific Article: “Candidatus Ethanoperedens,” a Thermophilic Genus of Archaea Mediating the Anaerobic Oxidation of Ethane, mBio.

Image Credit: Pexels 

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