Professor Mary Lidstrom looks at an incubator-shaker containing bottles inoculated with Micromicrobium buryatense.
Professor Mary Lidstrom looks at an incubator-shaker containing bottles inoculated with Micromicrobium buryatense.Photo by Kyu Han
Imagine a world where greenhouse gases were reduced to a minimum, or where methane released from oil spills could be cleaned in an instant, or where we could develop fuel using only bacteria. Thanks to a discovery by UW researchers, a certain type of bacteria that lives off of methane is able to do just that.
Methylomicrobium and Methylobacter are a group of microorganisms that live in seasonal lakes that are salty and have high PH levels. They are relatively rare in terms of the general population. The microbes are unique because they live off of a natural gas, methane, and endure high PH, as well as salt and water stress.
“There is a great deal of interest in understanding how methane is utilized in the natural environment,” said Mary Lidstrom, professor of chemical engineering and microbiology. “But there’s interest in manipulating these bacteria to turn them into factories to convert natural gas into a liquid fuel.”
These microorganisms can be used, for example, during drilling — when methane is a byproduct — to produce diesel fuel on the oil rig. If the oil rig is a far away site, having fuel manufactured on site could help power the generators or the boats without bringing in more energy sources.
“It’s not an absolutely new idea; people have been looking for ways to convert natural gas into useful compounds for years,” said Marina Kalyuzhnaya, a research associate professor in the department of microbiology. The hunt originally started in the late 1970s, she explained.
Methane, the main component in natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas. It is used in two ways: flaring, which is burning off the methane, or off-gassing, which is simply releasing the methane into the atmosphere. Methane can enter the atmosphere through some other processes, such as drilling, mining, and on farms. Methane that is not flared or released back into the atmosphere can be dangerous, causing environmental harm.
“When [methane] is not flared … it just goes into the atmosphere and it becomes a detriment,” said David Beck, an assistant professor in the chemical-engineering department. “So it’s great to find things that eat methane because it’s worse than CO2.”
The bacteria can be changed through synthetic biology and engineering in order to benefit society. According to Beck, if these organisms can grow quickly on methane and there can be a production of fuel or drug chemical in the near future, there could be production of fuel for cars or new prescription medication.
Instead of than flaring methane or making energy, there is a way to produce man-made sources in urban environments and recapture them for production. The production of chemicals could be near the methane sources that are in urban areas, such as waste water treatment plants, or even in rural areas like farmers’ fields.
“With the biotechnology parts of it, we are doing genetic manipulations to be able to take advantage of this the low-oxygen metabolism that they have to make productions.” Lidstrom said.
Reach reporter Kirsten Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @misskirstiea
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