Science

Newly Discovered Microbes Feed On Greenhouse Gases

Newly Discovered Microbes
Image source: Nature Communications

New research looks into newly discovered microbes which could help reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. They do so by consuming hydrocarbon solutions like methane and butane as their energy sources, and in that way limit emitting the gases into the atmosphere. If scientists learn enough about them, this knowledge could also be used for cleaning up oil spills in the future.

The team of researchers behind the study published in Nature Communications on Nov. 27, comes from the University of Texas Austin Marine Science Institute. The team discovered 24 new types of bacteria that mostly feed on hydrocarbons. The newly discovered microbes live in different conditions and this study aims to show how diversified some microbial communities are. The microbes are located in scorching-hot deep-sea sediments in the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California.

The microbes the team discovered are quite different compared to other species, with unique genetical features, representing completely “new branches in the tree of life.” More importantly, the microbes eat the chemical solutions which can pollute our atmosphere which are the main culprit behind global warming They are similar to the previously-discovered microbes in the Atlantic, last year.

“This shows the deep oceans contain expansive unexplored biodiversity, and microscopic organisms there are capable of degrading oil and other harmful chemicals,” said Assistant Professor of Marine Science, Brett Baker, the paper’s primary investigator, in a statement. “Beneath the ocean floor huge reservoirs of hydrocarbon gases—including methane, propane, butane and others—exist now, and these microbes prevent greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere.”

“The tree of life is something that people have been trying to understand since Darwin came up with the concept over 150 years ago, and it’s still this moving target at the moment,” said Baker, who earlier was part of a team that mapped the most comprehensive genomic tree of life to date. “Trying to map the tree is really kind of crucial to understanding all aspects of biology. With DNA sequencing and the computer approaches that we use, we’re getting closer, and things are expanding quickly.”

In this study, Baker’s team looks into how microbes communicate with the outside world and the energy sources they use, by collecting sediment samples and microbes found in nature. They collect their DNA and study it in the lab to find new genomes, which are sets of genes found in organisms, and infer how the microbes consume different food.

“For this, we try to look for organisms that have been studied before and look for similarities and differences,” said former UT postdoctoral researcher Nina Dombrowski, who is now at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. “This might initially sound easy, but really is not, since often more than half of the genes we find are so far uncharacterized and unknown.”

The team gathered the samples of the newly discovered microbes using the Alvin submersible, which is the same submarine which was used to track down and find the Titanic, given that the current conditions at the Titanic are similar to the conditions where these microbes are usually found on the ocean floor.

This is not the end of the study, however, as Baker and the Alvin sampling team have joined to study areas of the basin which haven’t been studied before.