During an expedition off the South American coast, an international team of ocean scientists discovered that the gases ethane and propane are widespread, and are being produced by microorganisms in deeply buried sediments.
Prof. Kai-Uwe Hinrichs (Research Center Ocean Margins, University of Bremen), co-author Prof. John Hayes (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), and colleagues report new findings on the production of energy-laden gases in a paper in this week's online edition of the renowned Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. (PNAS). The findings suggest that microbes in the deeply buried, vast ecosystem below the seafloor carry out hitherto unrecognized processes, which are highly relevant to both our understanding of global element cycles and the metabolic abilities of Earth's microbial biosphere.
"In a way, the finding was coincidental," Hinrichs states. Onboard the research drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution, the geochemist, now at the University of Bremen but then at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), analyzed the gases in sediments buried up to 400 meters in the Equatorial Pacific off Peru. "We were swamped with samples: in nearly a thousand samples of up to 40 million-year-old sediment, we analyzed the gas content." Despite work shifts of up to 14 hours, the shipboard scientists soon had a backlog of unanalyzed samples, which turned out to be lucky. "When we later looked at the samples, we noticed that concentrations of ethane and propane were suspiciously high," Hinrichs adds. Soon the scientists realized that these gases were not artifacts or contaminants, but that they must have slowly escaped from the sediment.
The researchers began to wonder how to account for the presence of these gases. Normally, ethane and propane are known as typical products of fossil fuel generation at elevated temperatures and pressure, without direct involvement of microbes. In the PNAS article, the team argues that microbes played a key role in the formation of these hydrocarbons.
"Sediments contain organic material (the fossil remnant of oceanic plants and animals)," Hinrichs explains. "This material, a key ingredient in the carbon cycle, is the major food used by the deep biosphere. During its decomposition by microbes, acetate--the ionic form of acetic acid--is formed. We think that bacteria use hydrogen to convert acetate into ethane. Addition of inorganic carbon and hydrogen provides a route to propane."
In support of their hypothesis for a biological origin of the gases, the researchers point to several clues: "First, the sampling locations are remote from reservoirs of oil and natural gas, so that this source can be eliminated," Hinrichs says. "Moreover, the abundance of stable isotopes of carbon are markedly different from those in gases formed at high temperature," adds co-author John Hayes, a geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).
Co-author Wolfgang Bach, geochemist and professor at the Bremer Research Center points out, "We also were able to demonstrate that under the conditions prevailing at depth, these processes could yield just enough energy for growth of bacterial communities."
The paper leads to several new questions that will be addressed in future work. In a current PhD project in the Organic Geochemistry Group at the Research Center Ocean Margins, experiments are being conducted to locate the sedimentary sites where the gases are hidden. "Interlayer spaces of clay minerals are the best candidates right now," Hinrichs says. Other experiments are currently being designed to find out more about how the gases are being formed. He adds, "One important goal right now is to study these processes under controlled conditions in the lab to verify or refine the proposed mechanism." Hinrichs knows that it may not be easy to simulate processes from the deep biosphere, but the geochemist hopes to identify and replicate the conditions needed to stimulate the microbes to produce a lot of these energy carriers.
Nancy Light | EurekAlert!
A promising target in the quest for a 1-million-year-old Antarctic ice core
24.05.2018 | University of Washington
Tropical Peat Swamps: Restoration of Endangered Carbon Reservoirs
24.05.2018 | Leibniz-Zentrum für Marine Tropenforschung (ZMT)
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences