Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas whose damaging effect on the environment is second only to that of carbon dioxide. It comes from a variety of sources, with large amounts being emitted by agriculture, landfills, oil and coal mining, as well as natural sources like wetlands. The gas’ effects on the environment have made it a subject of increasing scrutiny, as scientists try to find a way to mitigate the large amounts of it being poured into the atmosphere.
The answer may lie in microbes called methanotrophs. These organisms are capable of converting methane into organic compounds, and a team of researchers from Montana State University (MSU), the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT), and the University of Oklahoma (OU) is very interested in them. Recently, the team received $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation for its project, Building Genome-to-Phenome Infrastructure for Regulating Methane in Deep and Extreme Environments, or BuG ReMeDEE. The NSF awarded the project a total of $6 million in August.
The researchers will look for the microbes in Yellowstone National Park’s thermal features as well as in what used to be a gold mine in South Dakota.
“It’s not well understood what organisms are involved in the conversion of methane in these environments,” said Robin Gerlach, a professor in MSU’s Chemical and Biological Engineering Department and the project’s principal investigator at MSU.
Robin Gerlach during a 2009 sampling trip to Yellowstone. [Image: Kelly Gorham/MSU]
Recently, MSU scientists measured methane in steam from Yellowstone’s hot springs, while SDSMT researchers found methanotrophs in the old gold mine, which is now called the Sanford Underground Research Facility.
“Yellowstone is a huge reservoir of microbial capabilities that we’ve barely explored,” said Brent Peyton, Director of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute and a member of the research team. “We’re looking for microbes that are just barely being discovered.”
MSU researchers will work on developing models that explain the metabolism of the microbes, and will look into ways to design and construct biofilms that optimize the methanotrophs’ ability to form organic compounds, which could be used to produce products like plastics and biofuels. One method of creating those biofilms may be to actually 3D print them. Connie Chang, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, will use microfluidic technology to manipulate microscopic liquid drops into which individual methanotrophs have been injected. Jim Wilking, also an Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, intends to use those methanotroph-laden drops as a feedstock for 3D printers that he has used to print objects from water-based gels.
Jim Wilking with a 3D printer. [Image: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/MSU]
By printing the methanotrophs into specific configurations, the team hopes to create prototypes of engineered biofilms that can convert methane into different materials.
“I’m really excited about the collaboration,” said Chang. “We each have different backgrounds and techniques.”
Connie Chang [Image: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/MSU]
Researchers at MSU have used biofilms for many applications, said Matthew Fields, Director of the Center for Biofilm Engineering and a member of the team. Such applications include things like sealing cracks in the underground casings of oil and gas wells, but building a biofilm at a cellular level is something entirely different. It’s cutting-edge engineering, he said.
If we can’t drastically reduce the amount of methane that is being put out into the atmosphere, it’s encouraging that there are other solutions – solutions that lie at the intersection of nature and technology. Harnessing these methanotrophs to 3D print biofilms not only helps the environment, it also allows for useful applications.