A New Discovery: Bacteria Release Methane to Obtain Phosphorus

Off the coast of Barbados, researchers from Bremen have made a groundbreaking discovery regarding the release of methane by bacteria in order to obtain phosphorus. They have found that methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming, is constantly escaping from the sea into the atmosphere. While methane is primarily produced by microorganisms in oxygen-deprived areas, it has been demonstrated that bacteria can produce methane in the presence of oxygen as well. These bacteria generate methane as a byproduct while acquiring phosphorus, an essential nutrient that is scarce in the sea. The distribution and significance of these bacteria and their abilities are still poorly understood and require further investigation.

A Study in the Western Tropical North Atlantic

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen have recently published a study in Nature Communications, which focuses on bacterial methane production in the surface water off the Caribbean island of Barbados. Unlike previous studies that mainly concentrated on regions in the Pacific, this study examines this process for the first time in the western tropical North Atlantic. The researchers discovered that methane production is highest near the water surface; however, methane was also detected at depths of up to 200 meters. This is significant because at these depths, there is an ample amount of phosphate, rendering the use of methylphosphonate unnecessary for the bacteria. Additionally, the types of bacteria involved in methane production change with depth, with cyanobacterium Trichodesmium dominating at the surface and Alphaproteobacteria prevailing at greater depths.

The Role of Phosphonates in the Carbon Cycle

By utilizing methylphosphonate, a phosphorus source that is otherwise unavailable, bacteria can fix more carbon in the surface water than if they solely relied on phosphate. According to the researchers’ calculations, the bacteria can fulfill around a tenth of their phosphorus needs from methylphosphonate. Consequently, these bacteria can remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in nutrient-poor ocean regions, emphasizing the ecological importance of phosphonates in the carbon cycle. However, while these microorganisms capture carbon dioxide, they also release methane, a greenhouse gas that is even more potent. The study reveals that methane production can occur in oxygen-rich water columns, challenging the previous notion that it was impossible. Given that these bacteria are found in oceans worldwide, the methane produced from methylphosphonate likely plays a considerable role in the release of this greenhouse gas from the sea, particularly in phosphate-poor environments.

The amount of methane released into the environment depends on the balance between its production and oxidation. However, the researchers have not yet obtained a comprehensive understanding of the sources and sinks of methane in the ocean, nor do they fully comprehend how these factors interact with ongoing climate change. There is a growing suspicion that aerobic methane production will increase in the future as phosphate becomes scarcer due to ocean warming and stronger stratification of the water column. This is concerning because this process occurs in surface waters, allowing the methane produced to escape immediately into the atmosphere. To effectively predict and counteract the negative effects of these processes, further research must be conducted to elucidate their mechanisms and determining factors.

Understanding how these processes function is crucial in order to better predict and mitigate their negative consequences. By delving deeper into the dynamics of methane production and release, researchers can develop strategies to address these issues. This newfound knowledge about the role of bacteria in methane release and their dependence on phosphorus sheds light on an intricate aspect of the carbon cycle and global warming. As scientists continue to unravel the complexities of our environment, we inch closer to finding solutions that can help preserve our planet for future generations. The quest for knowledge must persist, driving us to seek a deeper understanding of the world around us and equipping us with the insights needed to tackle the challenges posed by climate change.


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