Ecological Aspects of Methane Oxidation, a Key Determinant of Global Methane Dynamics

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Abstract

Methane oxidation became a subject of scientific inquiry when Alessandro Volta observed in 1776 that gas bubbles collected from a pond were combustible. Methane was subsequently exploited as a source of heat and light. However, in spite of its commercial significance, the biological and ecological aspects of methane oxidation were largely ignored until the pioneering work of Söhngen (1906), who first isolated methane-oxidizing bacteria (MOB). [Quayle (1987) notes that Lowe probably isolated the first MOB in 1892 without recognizing their ability to oxidize methane.] Little additional progress was made until the 1960s, at which time the systematic efforts of several groups provided methodological tools and details on the taxonomy, physiology, and biochemistry of C1 metabolism. Aside from purely academic motivations, this work was stimulated by: (1) the potential use of methanotrophic bacteria as sources of “single cell protein”; (2) the role of methylotrophic bacteria in food spoilage; (3) the possible use of methanotrophs in the bioremediation of certain halogenated organic pollutants or as agents for commercial biotransformations (Higgins et al., 1980). Ecological studies were slower in development, but a number of important observations established the ubiquity of methanotrophs, the impact of methane oxidation in freshwater and some marine systems, and the potential for anaerobic as well as aerobic methane oxidation (see Hanson, 1980, and Rudd and Taylor, 1980, for earlier reviews).