Microbes could be gatekeepers of the planet’s best greenhouse gasoline reserves

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Microbes might be gatekeepers of the planet’s greatest greenhouse gas reserves

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Chris Allen, Queen’s University Belfast and Niall English, University College Dublin

Massive greenhouse gas reserves frozen deep beneath the ocean floor are now beginning to thaw alarmingly. This is from the point of view of an international team of scientists, the preliminary results of which were recently published in the Guardian. These deposits, which are technically referred to as methane gas hydrates, are often referred to as “fiery ice”, as ice is apparently burned on a Bunsen burner.

The research has not yet been peer-reviewed and has been discussed controversially. Some climate researchers say the Guardian article makes unsupported claims. We agree that the results should be peer reviewed before they are reported. However, as experts on these exact methane hydrates, we are more sympathetic than climatologists to the idea that this is a serious possibility to be concerned about. While this is controversial, let's assume for a moment that this latest finding is real and that methane, frozen beneath the ocean floor, is actually being released. What does that mean?

Methane isn't as common as carbon dioxide, but it also contains carbon and is a powerful greenhouse gas. Many people have heard of the storage of methane in Arctic permafrost, but few know that there are massive and much larger deposits of the gas under the ocean floor.

Although the thawing of greenhouse gases on the ocean floor has been envisaged – and feared – for some time, it was not suspected as a serious problem until the middle of this century. If it seems to be melting much sooner now, it is a signal that human indifference to the environment and the release of carbon from fossil fuels are now being effectively amplified by the disintegration of the geological balance of our own planet. https://www.youtube.com/embed/w8d38CXQoJw?wmode=transparent&start=0 "Fiery Ice" in action.

To put this into perspective: These natural underground reserves store perhaps 20 times more carbon than the entire biomass on earth put together – i.e. all plants, animals and microbes. It is clear that there is at least the potential for significant greenhouse gas emissions from these reservoirs.

Methane, trapped in their icy prison cells from underground hydrates, would stay there for millions of years and accumulate over the eons. If these deposits thaw quickly now, we might think that basic physical parameters like temperature and pressure are the only things that control their formation and destabilization. If so, the problem could easily be understood and possibly even alleviated by human intervention. However, it increasingly seems that other less predictable factors are also relevant.

World map with shaded areas near the coastEstimated methane hydrate occurrences in the world. World Ocean Review (data: Wallmann et al.)

One unexpected impact is Earth's fluctuating magnetic field, which, as we found in a study published last year, can potentially destabilize methane deposits. There is even the possibility that this effect could ultimately lead to mass extinction: the global destruction of gas hydrates could have caused the great end-permic extinction that wiped out 90% of the species on earth about 250 million years ago.

Microbes can stabilize these methane deposits

Another overlooked factor is the role of microbial life. Microbes have been with us for more than 3 billion years and can be found almost everywhere on our planet, including deep under the ocean floor, in places where we might otherwise believe that living things cannot survive – let alone thrive. It therefore seems perfectly natural that the same microbes would interact with stored hydrate reserves and possibly even use the high energy methane to thrive.

Black and white photo of some rod-shaped bacteria.Black and white photo of some rod-shaped bacteria.A type of Methylobacterium, similar to the bacteria that live on methane underground. Microbe Wiki / Anesti et al

What if these microbes also stabilize their "food source"? Our research teams recently demonstrated that marine methane-using bacteria can easily produce simple proteins or “biomolecules” that do just that. In addition, we have demonstrated the accelerated formation of gas hydrates by such biomolecules in laboratory experiments and computer simulations, so that we can now draw the conclusion that microbes actually coordinate these reserves under the real conditions under our seas and oceans.

The story becomes even more fascinating. We next examined the influence of both magnetic field changes and biomolecules on the rate of methane hydrate formation. These two factors appear to be complementary, so microbes growing on hydrates in the presence of the relatively weak but changing magnetic field may have adapted and evolved – no doubt over geological time periods – to adequately control the massive methane hydrate deposits below found on the ocean floor and in permafrost.

In other words, yes, microbes can really be the gatekeepers of this aspect of Earth's climate stability. If we've upset this delicate geomicrobial balancing act with global warming and it's clearly still a big “if”, then we're not just playing with fiery ice, but possibly seeing a world with unseen temperature increases since the dinosaurs roamed the planet.

Chris Allen, Professor of Interdisciplinary Microbiology at Queen & # 39; s University in Belfast and Niall English, Professor at the School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering at University College Dublin

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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