David Karl, an oceanographer in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa has published a paper on a new pathway to methane production. The article appears in Nature Geoscience and discusses the aerobic decomposition of organic phosphorus containing compound called methylphosphonate that might be responsible for the “super saturation” of methane in the ocean’s surface water.

Methylphosphonate was discovered in the 19060s and labs have successfully yielded methane from bacterial growth in methylphosphonate. But until Mr. Karl’s work, the pathway to this open ocean production wasn’t understood. The documenting of the process opens doors to understanding the concentrations of methane in near surface waters and how those waters can be so rich when the process of formation needs to take place in deep oxygen free zones.

The process discovery was driven by the puzzle of why methane was concentrated at the surface where oxygen was present when the expectation would be that the concentrations should be in deep water as the production is thought to be in areas where the oxygen is depleted (anaerobic). The discovery then has been mated to the work at MIT by the co-author Edward DeLong and colleagues who have developed a technology that produces methane in aerobic marine environments. DeLong says, “In the case of genomics, the growing databases of marine microbial genomic and metagenomic data have great potential to help us link which organisms, and which genes, are responsible for driving important nutrient and elemental cycles in the sea, like aerobic methane generation.”

Just so, I would say. This discovery opens doors to new innovations across a wide array of specialties. Oceanographers will have new tools to assess the methane matter in the ocean’s surface waters. Climatologists will exploit the matter to push along new global warming theories. But the meat of the matter is in microbiology, as finding a natural pathway that goes into aerobic methane production which runs cross current to the known technology in the field offers a vast new resource for identifying genomes and offering the potential for much more practical production of methane from contemporary sources.

The authors are said to be very excited. Me too! More sources and a potential to get to current account resources to produce much more methane, the 4 hydrogen one carbon molecule, is a goal well worth an intense effort.



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