Methane-absorbing bacteria could mitigate global heating

Scientists developed a new technology to tackle the rapidly increasing methane emissions in the atmosphere at low concentrations.
Shubhangi Dua
Methane eating Bactria strain could reduce global heating
Methane eating Bactria strain could reduce global heating

georgeclerk / iStock 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Methane (CH4) is responsible for 11.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Methane is a potent gas that releases pollutants into the atmosphere during the production and transportation of coal, natural gas, and oil. Additionally, livestock, agriculture, land use, and decaying waste in landfills all release methane.

A recent study identified a strain of methanotrophic bacteria – Methylotuvimicrobium buryatense 5GB1C, which can grow and consume methane at low concentrations (500 ppm and lower), the study stated.

Methylotuvimicrobium buryatense consumes emissions

A team of researchers from California University Long Beach proposed naturally converting methane into carbon dioxide and biomass through the newly identified gas-eating bacteria.

Mary E. Lidstrom, the lead researcher of the study, stated that the group eats methane, removing it from the air and converting part of it to cells as a source of sustainable protein.

If the approach becomes widespread, it could mitigate global warming and contribute positively to addressing climate change.

Scientists explained the technique would involve cultivating and optimizing the bacterial strains in controlled environments (such as bioreactors) to enhance their methane consumption efficiency and then deploying them in emission sites like landfills or industrial facilities where methane is produced. 

Euan Nisbet, professor of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, alluding to study findings, said, “Bacteria that rapidly eat methane at the higher concentrations found around cattle herds, etc., could make a huge contribution to cutting methane emissions, especially from tropical agriculture,” 

The study further explained that the methane-eating strain can consume methane emissions at a high rate due to a low energy requirement and makes for a greater attraction for the gas – five times more than that of other bacteria.

“The bacteria oxidize the methane to CO2 (a much less powerful greenhouse gas) and so you can even use the exhaust to pump into greenhouses and grow tomatoes,” added Nisbet.

Lidstrom also stated that the biggest barrier to implementing the approach is technical. She said:

“We need to increase the methane treatment unit 20-fold. If we can achieve that, then the biggest barriers become investment capital and public acceptance. We believe we could have field pilots tested within three to four years, and scale-up would then depend on investment capital and commercialization.”

Mass-scale execution

To implement the method on a mass scale, scientists said that thousands of high-functioning reactors will be required.

Mary Ann Bruns, professor of soil microbiology at Pennsylvania State University, stressed that human survival depends on lowering atmospheric methane. 

“Lack of political will and understanding in the private and public sectors about the urgency of the need to reduce methane now will make global heating even worse in coming years.” 

The study emphasized that to meet the climate targets, solutions to reduce methane and other gas emissions are necessary. However, Lidstrom warned that emission reduction methods boosting bacterial activity could lead to elevated nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. N2O has a global heating potential ten times greater than that of methane.

The technology has the potential to slow down global warming by 2050, researchers predicted. The Guardian reported that the projections indicate global heating could be reduced from 0.21C to 0.22C by removing 0.3 to 1 petagrams of methane by 2050. The anticipated temperature reduction of this magnitude is significant, especially when integrated with other emission reduction approaches.

The study was published on 21 August in the journal PNAS.

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