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Microbial hydrocarbon 'cracking'

Scientists revealed biological methane formation from saturated long-chain hydrocarbons

Methane, an inflammable gas, is an important end product of natural decomposition processes that take place under exclusion of air, for instance in swamps, lake and ditch sediments, as well as in sewage digestors. It often forms gas bubbles ascending to the water surface and is also referred to as biogas or swamp gas. The process is due to the cooperative action of microorganisms that belong to the bacteria and the archaea, the two major forms of microbial life. They make their living by converting the components of sedimented, dead biomass, such as cellulose, starch or proteins via several steps to the simplest carbon compounds, methane and carbon dioxide.

Aquatic sites with microbial methane production are wide-spread, and methane, similar to carbon dioxide, influences the heat budget and chemistry of our atmosphere. Because of this global relevance and the unique underlying enzymatic processes running without any oxygen, the bacteria and archaea involved in methane formation have fascinated microbiologists and been under investigation since years, especially in laboratories in the Untited States and Europe.

Until now, little was known about the compounds that serve for methane formation in old, deep parts of aquatic sediments where cellulose or other easily decomposable biomolecules have been consumed by microbes already a long time ago. Here, microbial life is expected to be sustained by relatively long-lived and sluggish substances. Investigation of such processes in natural sediments is of increasing interest, but is also tedious due to the slowness of the reactions and sensitivity to sampling procedures. One wide-spread class of long-lived compounds in deep, oxygen-free sediments are saturated hydrocarbons. They originate from plants, animals and microbes (as part of their fat
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Contact: Friedrich Widdel
fwiddel@mpi-bremen.de
49-421-2028-702
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
15-Sep-1999


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