Researchers from the University of Queensland have discovered a new methane-producing microbe that has significant ramifications for global warming.

Scientists from the University of Queensland’s Australian Centre for Ecogenomics have discovered a new methane-producing microbe, known as a methanogen, in thawing permafrost in northern Sweden.

Study co-first author Ben Woodcroft says the discovery of the new organism was the microbial equivalent of discovering cats or dogs.

“Methane was predicted to be generated by microbes known as methanogens, and that is where as microbial ecologists we were able to use our expertise,” says Woodcroft. “Not much is known about this methanogen, and indeed we were able to show that it is the first known member of a new biological family.”

The organism was shown to be present in methane-producing environments across the world, indicating that the microbe was contributing quite significantly to methane emission.

“Due to climate change, permafrost across the world is thawing, particularly since warming is occurring more rapidly near the planet’s north and south poles,” says Woodcroft. “So it is a positive feedback loop: climate change causes permafrost thaw, and permafrost thaw exacerbates climate change.”

With methane being approximately 30 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, the methanogens being revealed by thawing permafrost presents a significant new impact on global warming.

“While there has been some theories floated in the scientific literature about ways to stop methane release from thawing permafrost and other wetlands, there is no easy solution,” says Woodcroft, adding that other significant contributors to methane emission include landfill, coal and gas mining, cows, and rice cultivation. “If we wish to slow climate change we need to consider what the most effective pathways for doing so are, and then actually follow through with them.”

The researchers used methods from the developing field known as ‘metagenomics’ to hone in on the microbes in an environmental sample, rather than using the traditional approach of cultivating organisms in isolation in a lab.

“Traditional methods of cultivation don’t cut it,” Woodcroft says. “We might be able to grow a few of the organisms, but there’s no guarantee that the ones we manage to grow will be the ones important for generating methane.

“In thawing permafrost there is tens of thousands of different microbes living together which makes our job harder, but we were able to get around the problems because the methanogen was very abundant.”

The research was an international effort, with over six universities involved in the inter-disciplinary study.

“I think we can say now that we better understand how methane is being generated,” says Woodcroft.

“But there’s lots of questions that remain. Thankfully we have recently been funded again so we will have the bandwidth to try and answer these questions.”