Scientists Have Cultivated a “Miracle Microbe” That Converts Oil Into Methane

Scientists have succeeded in cultivating an archaeon that converts oil into methane. They describe how the microbe achieves the transformation and that it prefers to eat rather bulky chunks of food.

Microorganisms can convert oil into natural gas, i.e. methane. Until recently, it was thought that this conversion was only possible through the cooperation of different organisms. In 2019, Rafael Laso-Pérez and Gunter Wegener from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology suggested that a special archaeon can do this all by itself, as indicated by their genome analyses. Now, in collaboration with a team from China, the researchers have succeeded in cultivating this “miracle microbe” in the laboratory. This enabled them to describe exactly how the microbe achieves the transformation. They also discovered that it prefers to eat rather bulky chunks of food.

In an oil field like this, Gunter Wegener and his colleagues found the microorganisms that now also live in their laboratory. Genetic information shows that they are widespread and even live in the deep sea. Credit: Yoshi Canopus

Un­der­ground oil de­pos­its on land and in the sea are home to mi­croor­gan­isms that use the oil as a source of en­ergy and food, con­vert­ing it into meth­ane. Un­til re­cently, it was thought that this con­ver­sion was only pos­sible in a com­plic­ated team­work between dif­fer­ent or­gan­isms: cer­tain bac­teria and usu­ally two ar­chaeal part­ners. Now the re­search­ers have man­aged to cul­tiv­ate an ar­chaeon called Meth­an­ol­i­paria from a set­tling tank of an oil pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity that handles this com­plex re­ac­tion all by it­self.

Enzymes just in case

This “mir­acle mi­crobe” breaks down oil into meth­ane (CH4) and car­bon di­ox­ide (CO2). “Meth­an­ol­i­paria is a kind of hy­brid creature that com­bines the prop­er­ties of an oil de­grader with those of a meth­ano­gen, i.e. a meth­ane pro­du­cer,” ex­plains study au­thor Gunter We­gener from the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Mar­ine Mi­cro­bi­o­logy and the MARUM – Cen­ter for Mar­ine En­vir­on­mental Sci­ences at the Uni­versity of Bre­men.

Image from the epifluorescence microscope: Methanoliparia cells (green) from the laboratory cultures. The oil droplet that the archaea colonized can be seen as a reddish glow. The red dots display rare bacteria in the culture. Credit: Rafael Laso-Pérez/Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology; from: Zhou et al., Nature, 2021

Now that the re­search­ers have suc­ceeded in cul­tiv­at­ing these mi­croor­gan­isms in the labor­at­ory, they were able to in­vest­ig­ate the un­der­ly­ing pro­cesses in de­tail. They dis­covered that its ge­netic make-up gives Meth­an­ol­i­paria unique cap­ab­il­it­ies. “In its genes it car­ries the blue­prints for en­zymes that can ac­tiv­ate and de­com­pose vari­ous hy­dro­car­bons. In ad­di­tion, it also has the com­plete gear kit of a meth­ane pro­du­cer,” says We­gener.

New pathway of methanogenesis

In their labor­at­ory cul­tures, the re­search­ers offered the mi­crobes vari­ous kinds of food and used a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent meth­ods to keep a close eye on how Meth­an­ol­i­paria deal with it. What was par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing to see was that this ar­chaeon ac­tiv­ated all the dif­fer­ent hy­dro­car­bons with one and the same en­zyme. “So far, we have only cul­tiv­ated ar­chaea that live on short-chain hy­dro­car­bons such as eth­ane or bu­tane. Meth­an­ol­i­paria, on the other hand, prefers heavy oil with its long-chain com­pounds,” says co-au­thor Ra­fael Laso-Pérez, who now works at Spain’s Na­tional Cen­ter for Bi­o­tech­no­logy (CNB).

“Meth­ano­genic mi­crobes that use long-chain hy­dro­car­bons dir­ectly – we did­n’t know these ex­is­ted un­til now. Even com­plic­ated hy­dro­car­bons with ring-like or aro­matic struc­tures are not too bulky for Meth­an­ol­i­paria, at least if they are bound to at least one longer car­bon chain. This means that be­sides our other ex­cit­ing res­ults we have also found a pre­vi­ously com­pletely un­known path­way of meth­ano­gen­esis.”

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s full of surprises: Bottles like these harbor the cultures of Methanoliparia. Credit: Lei Cheng

Detectable from the oil tank to the deep sea

The Meth­an­ol­i­paria cells cul­tured for the present study ori­gin­ate from one of Chin­a’s largest oil fields, the Shengli oil field. However, ge­netic ana­lyses show that these mi­crobes are dis­trib­uted all over the world, even down to the deep sea. “Our res­ults hold an en­tirely new un­der­stand­ing of oil ex­ploit­a­tion in sub­sur­face oil reser­voirs. Both the wide dis­tri­bu­tion of these or­gan­isms and the po­ten­tial in­dus­trial ap­plic­a­tions make this an ex­cit­ing field of re­search in the com­ing years,” We­gener con­cludes.

Reference: “Non-syntrophic methanogenic hydrocarbon degradation by an archaeal species” by Zhuo Zhou, Cui-jing Zhang, Peng-fei Liu, Lin Fu, Rafael Laso-Pérez, Lu Yang, Li-ping Bai, Jiang Li, Min Yang, Jun-zhang Lin, Wei-dong Wang, Gunter Wegener, Meng Li and Lei Cheng, 22 December 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04235-2

EnergyMax Planck InstituteMax Planck Institute for Marine MicrobiologyMethaneMicrobiologyPopular
Comments ( 19 )
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  • Jordan Dip

    formatting error? 12/23 1:10

    • Mike O'Neill

      I apologize for the bad formatting. It is now fixed. There was extraneous HTML that messed up the formatting on some devises.

  • T. R. Valentine

    The CSS for this page is causing it to not display properly.

    • Mike O'Neill

      I apologize for the bad formatting. It is now fixed. There was extraneous HTML that messed up the formatting on some devises.

  • Ken Towe

    What’s the big deal? Humans convert oil into CO2 and water and use the energy to make their lives better.

  • Michelle

    I am a little confused…how did we get from “bad cattle industry” because cattle produce methane gas to “wow, let’s produce methane gas in a lab”. Something isn’t right here.

  • James

    This sounds, terrible.
    CO2 is bad enough for the atmosphere but methane is worse.
    Do we really have to exploit this little critter and try to make as much of it as we can? I feel like I’ve seen how this movie ends.

  • Dan Petit

    If previous ice core gas analytics indicate the previous Ice Age was triggered at 400 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with a ten year onset, and where, back in 2013, May 9th, we surpassed it, then if the last two Polar Vortex Winters, combined with Atmospheric Rivers combining a potentially sudden and deep accumulation of widespread snow and ice in North America and Europe (reflectance), might we need this technology to provide as much natural gas as possible to heat our homes?

    If true, then we would be already 8 years into that ten year onset stage.
    I doubt the Earths tilt nor El Nino/La Nina would be as significant a set factors.
    We must at least critically look into this possibility, and assist in discussion regarding the sealing of the natural gas leakages in our current natural gas infrastructures for this reason as well as considering the possible necessity of increasing (yes, as an environmentalist, increasing) the production of natural gas from depleted oil wells with this organism. (Even the increase in drilling of gas/oil wells should we be facing an onset of another Ice Age.)

  • E.V.S.Prakasa Rao

    Great news. Congratulations to the scientists. Do any of the oil eating microbes which were in news for some time, find larg scale adoption now?

  • Rasmus Schultz

    Plot twist: the organism gets out in the wild, converts all of the oil into methane, turns Earth into a flaming ball of death.

  • Russ Hamilton

    James you moron, is anyone burning CO2? Nope, what does burned methane conver to moron?

    • Frank Bees

      no one likes you Hamilton.

    • Mike O'Neill

      I apologize for the bad formatting. It is now fixed. There was extraneous HTML that messed up the formatting on some devises.

  • Ivan Campos

    Is it so difficult for people to see that those microrganisms can help with degradeting oil stains in the ocean?
    People are judging the research by it’s utility, but that’s not how science production works. For the first time we have found a organism with that abillity. It is very important, idependently of it’s implications for industry or enviroment or wathever. Further research will lead us to their utility.

  • Will

    I’m very confused as here in the USA we are looking at a new law at least here in California that we have to separate our organic food waste so it won’t end up in the landfill and create more methane so how is this discovery going to be of any use, as we have to much methane gass as it is. If we are trying to reduce methane then why would we want an enzyme that produces more, is that not like sleeping with the football team to remain a virgin?

  • Eduardo Radespiel

    The point is oil reserves are economically exploited up to nearly 45%, Being usual Just 20% avg of recoverable total volume of oil down there.
    Microbes digesting oil and producing natural gas theoritically increases astronomically the total methane reserves worldwide. Bad news: hydrocarbons dependency might last longer. Good news is methane burns more efficient and Cleanly.

    • Eduardo Radespiel

      Sorry,Where you read “increases” you should read “can increase”. It is a long way to Go. It ALL depends on R&D.

  • Someone who actually CARES for earth

    WTF?!!
    Why. Why do this. Global warming is already caused by greenhouse gases. There’s a microbe that transforms oil, which is already bad enough, to co2 and methane. AND THEY CALL IT “MIRACLE”. WHAT THE ACTUAL F***. Idiots. STOP. TRYING. To destroy THE F***ING PLANET💀☠😡🤬😤😞🙄🙄🙄🙄God help us all these so-called “*scientists* are IDIOTS.