Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


University of Hawaii researchers discover new pathway for methane production in the oceans

A new pathway for methane production has been uncovered in the oceans, and this has a significant potential impact for the study of greenhouse gas production on our planet.

The article, released in the prestigious journal Nature Geoscience, reveals that aerobic decomposition of an organic, phosphorus-containing compound, methylphosphonate, may be responsible for the supersaturation of methane in ocean surface waters.

Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 on a per weight basis. Although the volume of methane in the atmosphere is considerably less than CO2, methane is much more efficient at trapping the long wavelength radiation that keeps our planet habitable but is also responsible for enhanced greenhouse warming. Today, between 20-30% of the total radiative forcing of the atmosphere is due to methane. Terrestrial sources of methane production are well known and studied (including extraction from natural gas deposits and fermentation of organic matter), but those known sources did not account for the levels of methane observed in the atmosphere.

David Karl, an Oceanographer in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawai'i at Mânoa and lead author of this paper, was interested in this "methane enigma" and why the surface ocean was loaded with methane, over and above levels found in the atmosphere. When looking at the literature, Karl found a possible solution to the enigma, in the compound methylphosphonates, a very unusual organic compound only discovered in the 1960s. In the laboratory, the aerobic growth of certain bacteria on methylphosphonate can lead to the production of methane, but until now this process of methylphosphonate degradation in the ocean had not been suggested as a possible pathway for the aerobic production of methane in the sea.

"When people began measuring methane in the ocean, they found that methane concentrations varied with geographical location and with water depth", says Karl. "If methane was inert in the ocean, its concentration should be constant and nearly equal to the concentration in the atmosphere. What the scientists found was that methane was lower than expected in deep waters, implying net consumption by microbes. However the big surprise was that near surface concentrations were higher than in the overlying atmosphere which indicated a local production of methane in the sea. Because methane is produced only in regions devoid of oxygen and since the surface ocean contains high oxygen levels this was very perplexing."

Karl was able to combine a long term interest in methane, 20 years of ocean observing data at the Hawaii Ocean Timeseries site Station Aloha, and new technology that Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-author Edward DeLong and colleagues have developed to produce methane in aerobic marine environments. "I think this work nicely demonstrates the complementarity of different methods and approaches, which include oceanography, microbial ecology, and genomics techniques," says DeLong. "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. With our colleagues at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE, of which Karl is the Director, and DeLong the Co-Director), we plan next to learn how and when microbial communities turn on and off their methane production genes, in response to the methane precursors, like methylphosphonate, in their natural environment. This should provide new insights about the 'who' and the 'how' of this newly discovered methane generating process in the sea."

Although the implications for global climate change are still being studied, the warming and further stratification of the ocean seem likely to affect marine methane production. "This is a newly recognized pathway of methane formation that needs to be incorporated into our thinking of global climate," says Karl. "Since our oceans cover ¾ of the planet, you just need to stimulate this pathway a little bit and you're going to create more methane. And one way you can tweak it is to stratify the oceans, which we know will happen. All of the climate models show that the ocean will become more nutrient limited over time."

Phil Taylor, Acting Head of the Ocean Section, Division of Ocean Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF) agrees. "This remarkable discovery about methane production where we thought there would be none is a harbinger of many new insights on the ocean's changing biogeochemical nature, and the intricate microbiological reasons for those changes."

Interest in this research crosses many specialties. Oceanographers will be excited because it offers a solution to the long standing methane paradox. Microbiologists will be excited because it shows an aerobic production pathway of methane, which goes against everything that is currently known about methane, and Climatologists will be interested because it's a potent greenhouse gas that we don't have constraints on, and this new pathway is very exciting.

"NSF funded C-MORE with the hope that its scientists would make new discoveries about the vast genomic diversity and complexity in the microbial world, and its impacts from cellular to global scales," says Matt Kane, Program Director for the NSF Division of Environmental Biology. "These findings are an example of the payoffs that come from an interdisciplinary and integrative approach to microbial oceanography."

This research was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

SOEST Media Contact: Tara Hicks Johnson, (808) 956-3151,

Aerobic production of methane in the sea
David M. Karl, Lucas Beversdorf, Karin M. Björkman, Matthew J. Church, Asuncion Martinez & Edward F. Delong Nature Geoscience, Published online: 29 June 2008 | doi:10.1038/ngeo234

The School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology was established by the Board of Regents of the University of Hawai'i in 1988 in recognition of the need to realign and further strengthen the excellent education and research resources available within the University. SOEST brings together four academic departments, three research institutes, several federal cooperative programs, and support facilities of the highest quality in the nation to meet challenges in the ocean, earth and planetary sciences and technologies.

Tara Hicks Johnson | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine

nachricht Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>