Newly discovered microbe holds key to global warming

Newly discovered microbe holds key to global warming
Scientists document the temperature of soil, one layer above permafrost. Credit: Dr Virginia Rich, University of Arizona.

( —Scientists from The University of Queensland have discovered a microbe that is set to play a significant role in future global warming.

UQ's Australian Centre for Ecogenomics researcher Ben Woodcroft said the methane-producing micro-organism, known as a 'methanogen', was thriving in northern Sweden's thawing permafrost in a thick subsurface layer of soil that has previously remained frozen.

Mr Woodcroft said no one knew of the microbe's existence or how it worked before the research discovery.

He said global warming trends meant vast areas of permafrost would continue to thaw, allowing the to flourish in organic matter and drive release, which would further fuel .

"The micro-organism generates methane by using and hydrogen from the bacteria it lives alongside," Mr Woodcroft said.

Lead researcher and UQ's Australian Centre for Ecogenomics Deputy Director Associate Professor Gene Tyson said the findings were significant.

"This micro-organism is responsible for producing a substantial fraction of methane at this site," he said.

"Methane is a with about 25 times the warming capacity of carbon dioxide."

The researchers showed the organism and its close relatives live not just in thawing permafrost but in many other methane-producing habitats worldwide.

The team made the discovery by using DNA from soil samples and reconstructing a near-complete genome of the microbe, bypassing traditional methods of cultivating microbes in the lab.

Explore further

New link could battle greenhouse gas emissions

More information: "Discovery of a novel methanogen prevalent in thawing permafrost." Rhiannon Mondav, et al. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3212 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4212. Received 11 June 2013 Accepted 07 January 2014 Published 14 February 2014
Journal information: Nature Communications

Citation: Newly discovered microbe holds key to global warming (2014, February 20) retrieved 22 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Feb 20, 2014
Very Bad News, indeed.

This discovery will go a long way towards fully explaining the sources of atmospheric methane, and developing metrics for this source to further refine current models.

Feb 20, 2014
Huh. Heres another significant factor which is not included in any current models. And I thought they had this stuff all figured out. Silly me.

Have I said this before? Will I probably say this again in the near future?

Feb 21, 2014
There are two problems her:
First: Methanogens are usually coccoid (spherical) or bacilli (rod shaped). There are over 50 described species of methanogens. They are anaerobic organisms and cannot function under aerobic conditions. They are very sensitive to the presence of oxygen even at trace level It is well known that oxygen can easily dissolve in cold water.
Two: Methanogens have been found in several extreme environments on Earth - buried under kilometres of ice in Greenland and living in hot, dry desert soil. They can reproduce at temperatures of 15 to 100 degrees Celsius. They are known to be the most common archae bacteria in deep subterranean habitats. Live microbes making methane were found in a glacial ice core sample retrieved from three kilometres under Greenland by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.
Three: What is the source of hydrogen? The thermal breakdown of water and water radiolysis are some possible sources of hydrogen. This may explain the presence of Methanogens in the glacial ice core. The drilling operation produces too much heat that may split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen may be oxidized to metal oxide from erosion of the drill blade.

Feb 22, 2014
@GhostofOtto... somehow I had not heard of any reports from scientists of any field, including climate science, claiming to have a complete understanding of any topic. I'd also like to point out that it is not the forcing mechanisms of climate change which are not understood. (There is a lot of geologic evidence showing a strong correlation between higher CO2 levels, and warmer temperatures, with the evolution of grasses able to more efficiently photosynthesis during the cenozoic as one of many reasons why the world has been on a cooling trend for millions of years). But it is the (mostly positive) feedbacks which are not so well understood, so the trend is lessened scientific uncertainty has been leading to a increasingly unfavorable prognosis. If you had experience working within the scientific community, you would know our capacity for widespread collusion is very limited by the pleasure we derive from disproving fallacious paradigms and our unsociable natures.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more