2107 Archive


New microbe degrades oil to gas

Mi­cro­scopy sug­gests that the re­cently dis­covered mi­crobe Meth­an­ol­i­paria pro­duces meth­ane from crude oil all by them­selves.

The tiny organisms cling to oil droplets and perform a great feat: As a single organism, they may produce methane from oil by a process called alkane disproportionation. Previously this was only known from symbioses between bacteria and archaea. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology have now found cells of this microbe called Methanoliparia in oil reservoirs worldwide.

Crude oil and gas nat­ur­ally es­cape from the seabed in many places known as “seeps”. There, these hy­dro­car­bons move up from source rocks through frac­tures and sed­i­ments to­wards the sur­face, where they leak out of the ground and sustain a diversity of densely populated habitats in the dark ocean. A large part of the hy­dro­car­bons, primar­ily al­kanes, is already de­graded be­fore it reaches the sed­i­ment sur­face. Even deep down in the sed­i­ment, where no oxy­gen ex­ists, it provides an im­port­ant en­ergy source for sub­sur­face mi­croor­gan­isms, amongst them some of the so-called ar­chaea.

These ar­chaea were good for many sur­prises in re­cent years (see “Fur­ther read­ing”). Now a study led by sci­ent­ists from the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Mar­ine Mi­cro­bi­o­logy in Bre­men, Ger­many, and the MARUM, Centre for Mar­ine En­vir­on­mental Sci­ences, provides en­vir­on­mental in­form­a­tion, gen­omes and first im­ages of a mi­crobe that has the po­ten­tial to trans­form long-chain hy­dro­car­bons to meth­ane. Their res­ults are pub­lished in the journal mBio.