Mi­crobe Degrades Oil to Gas
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Meth­an­ol­i­paria Mi­crobe Degrades Oil to Gas discovered recently

Scientists from have now found cells of the microbe called Methanoliparia in oil reservoirs worldwide.

The crude oil as well as gas nat­ur­ally es­cape from the seabed in many places known as “seeps.” These hy­dro­car­bons then move up from source rocks through frac­tures and sed­i­ments to­wards the sur­face. Here is where they leak out of the ground and then sustain a diversity of densely populated habitats in the deep dark ocean. A large part of these hy­dro­car­bons, especially al­kanes, which is already de­graded be­fore it reaches the sed­i­ment sur­face. This provides an im­port­ant en­ergy source for sub­sur­face mi­croor­gan­isms, even deep down in the sed­i­ment, where no oxy­gen ex­ists!

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Recently, a study led by researchers from the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Mar­ine Mi­cro­bi­o­logy in Bre­men, Ger­many, & the MARUM, Centre for Mar­ine En­vir­on­mental Sci­ences, provides en­vir­on­mental in­form­a­tion, gen­omes as well as the first im­ages of a mi­crobe that has the po­ten­tial to degrade oils to gas or in other words trans­form long-chain hy­dro­car­bons to meth­ane. Their study res­ults are pub­lished in the journal mBio.

Splitting oil into methane and carbon dioxide

This Meth­an­ol­i­paria mi­crobe, an ar­chaeon, degrades oils to gases by trans­forming the hy­dro­car­bons by a pro­cess called al­kane dis­pro­por­tion­a­tion: This is a process where it splits the oil into meth­ane (CH4) gas and car­bon di­ox­ide (CO2). Formerly, this hydrocarbon trans­form­a­tion by alkaline disproportionation was thought to re­quire a com­plex part­ner­ship between two kinds of microbes, i.e, ar­chaea, and bac­teria. Herewith the study by the research team from Max Planck In­sti­tute for Mar­ine Mi­cro­bi­o­logy and MARUM presents evid­ence for a dif­fer­ent solu­tion. Ra­fael Laso-Pérez, first-au­thor, explains that this is the first time researchers get to see an organism that has the po­ten­tial to de­grade oil to meth­ane gas all by it­self.

Dur­ing a cruise in the Gulf of Mex­ico, the researchers col­lec­ted sed­i­ment samples from the Chapo­pote Knoll. This is an oil and gas seep which is 3000 m deep in the ocean. Back in the lab in Bre­men, research team car­ried out ge­n­omic ana­lyses. This analysis that re­vealed that Meth­an­ol­i­paria microbe is equipped with certain novel en­zymes to use the quite un­re­act­ive oil without hav­ing oxy­gen. Gunter We­gener, the ini­ti­ator of the study and senior au­thor, said that the new microbe, Meth­an­ol­i­paria, is kind of a com­pos­ite be­ing and some of its microbe relatives are multi-carbon hydrocarbon-degrading archaea, oth­ers are the long-known own meth­ano­gens that form meth­ane as their meta­bolic product, he added. With the help of com­bined en­zymatic tools of both its re­l­at­ives, Meth­an­ol­i­paria microbe ac­tiv­ates and de­grades the oil but forms meth­ane gas as its fi­nal product. The visu­al­iz­a­tion of these microbes sup­ports the pro­posed mech­an­ism. Wegner explained that mi­cro­scopic results show that Meth­an­ol­i­paria microbe cells at­tach to oil droplets and researchers did not find any hints that it re­quires bac­teria or other ar­chaea as part­ners for this process of oil degradation to form methane gas.

Mi­crobe Degrades Oil to Gas
The submersible vehicle MARUM-QUEST samples for sediment at oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. ( Image courtesy: MARUM – Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences)

Very frequent and globally distributed

As the meta­bolic product meth­ane of this microbes is an im­port­ant green­house gas which is 25 times more po­tent than car­bon di­ox­ide, these Meth­ano­genic mi­croor­gan­isms have been im­port­ant for the earth’s cli­mate through time. Laso-Pérez and his col­leagues were also in­ter­ested to find out about how wide­spread this novel microbe is. Laso-Pérez said that the research team has scanned DNA-lib­rar­ies and found that Meth­an­ol­i­paria microbe is fre­quently de­tec­ted in oil reser­voirs (and only in oil reser­voirs) all over the oceans. Thus, Meth­an­ol­i­paria microbe could be a key agent in the trans­form­a­tion of oils i.e, long-chain hy­dro­car­bons to meth­ane gas.

Mi­crobe Degrades Oil to Gas
Epifluorescence microscopy picture of Methanoliparia-cells attached to a droplet of oil. (Image courtesy: Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology)

Sci­ent­ists next want to dig deeper into the secret life of this novel mi­crobe. We­gener ex­plained that researchers have the ge­n­omic evid­ence as well as pic­tures about the wide dis­tri­bu­tion and sur­pris­ing po­ten­tial of Meth­an­ol­i­paria microbe. But the team can’t yet grow them in the lab. That will be the next step to be focused on and It will en­able researchers to in­vest­ig­ate and find out many more ex­cit­ing de­tails of this microbe. For ex­ample, to find out whether it is pos­sible to re­verse the pro­cess, which would ul­ti­mately al­low us to trans­form a green­house gas into fuel.


Ria Roy completed her Post Grad degree at the Visvesvaraya Technological University. She has a great grounding in the skills, including technical, analytical and research skills. She is a motivated life science professional with experience of working in famous research institutes