Microbes eat natural gas

Bacteria with special dietary habits discovered

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In marine sediments, an international team of scientists has discovered unusual specialists for the first time: the bacteria feed on oxygen free and only need propane and butane gas to live. This reports the science magazine "Nature" in its current online edition.


In addition to the main component of methane, the hydrocarbons ethane, propane and butane are important constituents of natural gas. Due to geochemical findings, there have been long indications that biological processes in natural gas deposits and other geological habitats can lead to the degradation of these gas constituents.

"The bacteria, now isolated from marine sediments for the first time, use sulfate instead of oxygen to breathe and use propane and butane as the sole source of carbon and energy. These are extraordinary specialists who obviously do not use any other substrates than these gaseous hydrocarbons, "explains Heinz Wilkes, geochemist at the GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam (GFZ). He belongs to the German-American group of geoscientists and bioscientists responsible for the amazing find.

New biochemical mechanism

The studies have shown that they use a newly discovered biochemical mechanism to convert the extremely inert hydrocarbon into a metabolite that can then be completely degraded to carbon dioxide. The reaction mechanism of the microbes discovered here may lead to new synthetic approaches for the targeted development of chemical products from hydrocarbons. display

(idw - GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, 20.09.2007 - DLO)