Researchers from Germany have discovered deep-sea microbes that can convert ethane and methane, the main components of natural gas, into CO2 and other by-products. In addition to this the process seems to be reversible and they can turn the greenhouse gas back into fuel.
Unlike animals, that can only eat fats, carbohydrates and proteins, microbial life is renowned for being able to break down almost anything into a form of energy. Deep sea microbes in particular are specialists at being able to turn toxic substances and man-made objects into energy, but this is the first time a microbe has been found to break down ethane. When paired up with other microbes they can digest a majority of natural gas, including methane, which could be extremely useful in industrial biochemical processes. However the most exciting part of this discovery is that the new microbe can convert environmentally damaging CO2 back into ethane, which could potentially create a closed carbon loop.
Deep sea discovery
The new microbe in question was discovered by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany. They found the new species of archaea, a type of single celled organism without a defined nuclei, surrounding a deep-sea hydrothermal vent in the Guaymas Basin located in the Gulf of California. Most archaea of this kind often pair up with bacteria to form a ‘microbial consortium’ capable of breaking down and sharing a wider range of potential foods. The bacterial counterpart of the brand new archaea is fairly common and helps it break down methane, but the archaea itself is the first microbe found to be able to break down ethane, the other main component of natural gas. The researchers named it Ethanoperedens thermophilum meaning “heat-loving ethane-eater” and reported their findings in a new paper published in the journal mBio last week.
Whilst the samples were taken at the hot vent in the Guaymas Basin, the actual discovery took place in a laboratory back at the Max Planck Institute in Bremen. This type of work can be extremely tedious as microbial consortiums can take a long time to reproduce, which is needed to culture enough biomass to run tests on. However the new archaea reproduced quickly over weeks instead of months, meaning tests could be performed faster as well as meaning the microbes are well suited to being used on an industrial scale. This is something that researchers are very keen on testing given the ease at which the microbes can break down methane into ethane, a process that is useful in biochemical processes. It makes these microbes a very valuable find.
However what makes these microbes even more important and interesting is that the ethane degradation process they use to feed is reversible. In addition to feeding on ethane to create by-products including CO2, the laboratory cultures were also naturally able to convert the greenhouse gas back into ethane. The exact nature and mechanics of this reversing is still unclear at this time, but the potential implications are obviously huge. If mastered properly and farmed on an industrial scale, these microbes could turn CO2 back into fuel creating a closed carbon loop where no additional greenhouse gasses enter our atmosphere. Obviously this isn’t a perfect solution to climate change if you keep using the fuel as it doesn’t remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but regardless it is still an intriguing avenue to explore in our fight to save our planet from ourselves.
Microbes for the win
The biggest take away from this discovery is that despite being simple and small, microbial life has plenty to offer the rest of the world. Something summed up by Gunter Wegener, one of the authors of the paper, who said in a press release “we shouldn’t underestimate the smallest inhabitants of the sea”. As well as being useful to humanity, microbes play a key role in ocean ecosystems by converting inaccessible toxic substances into bioavailable energy. A great example of this is the complex and dynamic microbial communities that surround shipwrecks. In addition to this single celled phytoplankton are also responsible for providing energy to creatures at the surface of our oceans, as well as the air we breathe. Without microbes the entire global food web would quickly unravel.