The discovery of a new soil bacterium that consumes methane by oxidising it under atmospheric conditions is reported in Nature, out today. In well-drained soils, these methane-oxidising bacteria can reduce atmospheric levels of methane by 10 per cent.
Methane is an important greenhouse gas, and over the last 200 years its concentration in the atmosphere has doubled. But, until now, its low levels in the soil have prevented the detection of atmospheric methane-oxidising bacteria.
“This new method, using stable carbon isotopes to detect these micro-organisms, allows us to track where carbon is incorporated into bacteria at the low atmospheric levels of methane in soils,” says Dr Nisha Parekh, research co-ordinator from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology. “Identifying these bacteria will help us to understand the process of methane oxidation in the soil, and to look for strategies for controlling and maximising the amount of atmospheric methane that is oxidised by soils.”
Using the stable isotope method will allow identification of other micro-organisms, which carry out crucial environmental tasks but are not detected by current methods. This technique can now be used to look at the reactions of these ecologically important micro-organisms to changes in the environment, as well as their potential in the degradation of pollutants such as oil.
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