Methane-producing microbe blooms in permafrost thaw

March 10, 2014 by Linda Koffmar, Uppsala University
Methane-producing microbe blooms in permafrost thaw
The wet areas show where the mire has thawed out completely. Here methanogens thrive. Credit: Photograph: Rhiannon Mondav

In time with the climate warming up, parts of the permafrost in northern Sweden and elsewhere in the world are thawing. An international study published in Nature Communications describes a newly discovered microbe found in the thawing permafrost of a mire in northernmost Sweden. There it flourishes and produces large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Several billion years ago, before cyanobacteria oxygenised Earth's atmosphere, there was a group of microbes called archaea which flourished in the warm, shallow oceans, letting out the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Today, most of the archaea's descendants hide in places where oxygen cannot reach them. Many still produce methane. The methane-producing (methanogen) archaea in permafrost have led still lives in the frozen soil. The small amounts of methane they produced have stayed below the ice or have been consumed by methane-eating neighbours.

The heating-up of the arctic regions has changed this status quo. The now have access to carbon dioxide and hydrogen which they convert into methane. The methane is let out into the atmosphere and contributes to further global warming.

Previous research shows that the permafrost of the Stordalen mire has melted quickly over the last 30 years and that the mire emits an increasing amount of methane. Rhiannon Mondav, PhD student of limnology at Uppsala University, is part of the international research group which decided to look for methanogens in the mire. Several hundred samples of peat, water and air were gathered over several years and analysed.

When Rhiannon Mondav analysed the peat samples she discovered a previously unknown methanogen. Together with the research group she mapped its genome and named it Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis.

This newly discovered methanogen exists in such abundance that it made up 90 per cent of the archaea in the Stordalen mire. Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis feels so at home in the that it blooms, in a similar way to algal blooms. This is a previously unknown phenomena in methanogens, and since methane is a by-product of their metabolism it will have significant environmental consequences.

"DNA fragments from this microbe have been found over the last 20 years, but no one knew what it did or who its closest ancestors were. What we have done is to figure out what it does and who it is related to", says Rhiannon Mondav.

Now that the new species has been described, it has been found to exist also in other peatlands and mires, contributing in a significant way to global methane production and thereby . Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis manages surprisingly well in the acid peatlands with annual cycles of freezing, melting, flooding and drought.

"Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis seems to be a indicator species for melting permafrost. It is rarely found where there is permafrost, but where the peat is warmer and the permafrost is melting we can see that it just grows and grows. It is possible that we can use it to measure the health of mires and their permafrost. The recently documented global distribution also shows, on a much larger scale, that this microbe spreads to new areas in time with them thawing out. This is not good news for a stable climate", says Rhiannon Mondav.

Explore further: Newly discovered microbe holds key to global warming

Related Stories

Global warming in the Canadian Arctic

November 18, 2013

Ph.D. student Karita Negandhi and professor Isabelle Laurion from INRS'Eau Terre Environnement Research Centre, in collaboration with other Canadian, U.S., and French researchers, have been studying methane emissions produced ...

New knowledge about permafrost improving climate models

July 28, 2013

New research findings from the Centre for Permafrost (CENPERM) at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, document that permafrost during thawing may result in a substantial ...

Russia may lose 30% of permafrost by 2050

July 29, 2011

Russia's vast permafrost areas may shrink by a third by the middle of the century due to global warming, endangering infrastructure in the Arctic zone, an emergencies ministry official said Friday.

Recommended for you

A damming trend

December 14, 2018

Hundreds of dams are being proposed for Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia. The negative social and environmental consequences—affecting everything from food security to the environment—greatly outweigh the positive ...

Data from Kilauea suggests the eruption was unprecedented

December 14, 2018

A very large team of researchers from multiple institutions in the U.S. has concluded that the Kilauea volcanic eruption that occurred over this past summer represented an unprecedented volcanic event. In their paper published ...

The long dry: global water supplies are shrinking

December 13, 2018

A global study has found a paradox: our water supplies are shrinking at the same time as climate change is generating more intense rain. And the culprit is the drying of soils, say researchers, pointing to a world where drought-like ...

Death near the shoreline, not life on land

December 13, 2018

Our understanding of when the very first animals started living on land is helped by identifying trace fossils—the tracks and trails left by ancient animals—in sedimentary rocks that were deposited on the continents.

New climate model to be built from the ground up

December 13, 2018

Facing the certainty of a changing climate coupled with the uncertainty that remains in predictions of how it will change, scientists and engineers from across the country are teaming up to build a new type of climate model ...


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

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.