How microbes can combat climate change
Chemist Jessica Swanson works with bacteria that eat methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere.
While carbon dioxide gets much of the focus in the climate debate, methane, the main flammable component of natural gas, also drives planetary warming. Molecule for molecule, CH4’s heat-trapping potential is 34 times greater than that of CO2 (on a 100-year time scale) and it’s pouring into the atmosphere from both human and natural sources, posing a significant threat to global climate systems.
Now scientists from around the world are exploring various strategies for removing methane from the atmosphere in the hopes of slowing climate change.
University of Utah chemist Jessica Swanson has retooled her lab to help develop a process that would harness methane-eating bacteria, known as methanotrophs, which naturally break down methane into carbon dioxide and organic compounds. She aims to discover ways to enable methanotrophs to effectively pull methane from the air at low concentrations in next-generation bioreactors.
“I’m hopeful that the more we understand methanotrophs, the more we can also facilitate open-system, nature-based solutions,” Swanson said.
Methane accounts for at least 25% of planetary warming, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The gas is naturally oxidized in the atmosphere resulting in a shorter half-life than CO2, but methane sources are surpassing the oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere at a shocking rate—partially due to a positive feedback cycle between warming and natural emissions from wetlands and permafrost. The consequence is rapidly increasing atmospheric methane concentrations that pose a serious risk of near-term warming.