Actual science

These methane-eating bacteria could show us how to slow climate change

Researchers at Northwestern University are using the bacteria to convert greenhouse gasses into usable fuel.

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Bacteria that consume methane — aptly called methanotrophs — have been considered as a theoretical method of slowing climate change. But this idea has been mired because scientists have had only a minimal understanding of how this process actually works.

Now a group of researchers out of Northwestern University says it’s discovered the key to better understanding how, exactly, methanotrophs process methane. Their research, which was published Friday in Science, could eventually harness this bacteria’s ability to turn methane into methanol, which could then be used for powering vehicles instead of oil.

The process wouldn’t just help the world cut down on its consumption of oil, either. “You could use bacteria with an engineered enzyme to harvest methane from fracking sites or to clean up oil spills,” explains Amy Rosenzweig, the paper’s senior author.

Not an easy study — Though we know methanotrophs exist and have been able to observe their uncanny methane tricks, the microscopic organisms’ actual process for doing so has been very difficult to understand. That’s because the enzyme responsible for carrying out the transformation is actually embedded in the bacteria’s cell membrane. Ripping it out for closer study shuts down its activity, essentially rendering it useless to researchers.

This research group has taken a novel approach to study the enzyme: creating a synthetic bacterial membrane into which the enzyme can be inserted after it’s removed from bacteria. They’ve since been able to observe, down to the atomic level, exactly how the process works.

A leap in the right direction — We’re not yet at the point where we can take the methanotrophs’ methane-processing ability and use it for human needs. Now that researchers have figured out how to actually manipulate and test the process outside of a living organism, that methodology will need to be studied in great detail.

The study is a refreshing break from the seemingly endless stream of tech-based solutions being proposed to snuff climate change. In a world where billionaires think a $100 million prize could save the planet, strides in natural sciences feel like real progress. Actual climate-saving tech initiatives are more difficult to find than ever, these days, despite the gross number of them increasing every day.