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Microbial Community Shifts on Organic Rocks of Different Maturities Reveal potential Catabolisers of Organic Matter in Coal


The global trend of transiting to more renewable energy sources requires transition fuels, such as coal seam gas, to supplement and secure energy needs. In order to optimise strategies and technologies for enhancing gas production, an understanding of the fundamental microbial processes and interactions would be advantageous. Models have recently begun mapping the microbial roles and interactions in coal seam environments, from direct coal degradation to methanogenesis. This study seeks to expand those models by observing community compositional shifts in the presence of differing organic matter by conducting 16S rRNA microbial surveys using formation water from the Surat and Sydney Basins grown on varying types of organic matter (black and brown coal, oil shale, humic acid, and lignin). A total of 135 microbes were observed to become enriched in the presence of added organic matter in comparison to carbon-free treatments. These surveys allowed detailed analysis of microbial compositions in order to extrapolate which taxa favour growth in the presence of differing organic matter. This study has experimentally demonstrated shifts in the microbial community composition due to differing carbon sources and, for the first time, generated a conceptual model to map putative degradation pathways regarding subsurface microbial consortia.

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The authors thank Dr. Neil Sherwood and Dr. Zhongsheng Li for the photos and petrological analyses and Dr. Phil Hendry for the assistance with formulation of the chemical medium. Thanks also to Macrogen (Korea) for DNA sequencing. The authors also thank Origin and AGL for the access to their coal seam gas production areas for sampling of formation waters. The gamma irradiation in the present study was conducted with support from Professors Robert Willows and Jan Gebicki for which we are grateful. We also thank Ms. Bronwyn Campbell for the useful discussions on these processes and their relationships to geology. Mr. Andrew McLeish is supported through a postgraduate scholarship from Macquarie University and additional scholarship support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Energy.

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All OTU sequences were submitted to GenBank under the accession numbers MN929133-MN929716.

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This study was supported through a postgraduate scholarship from Macquarie University and additional scholarship support from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Energy.

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Correspondence to Andrew G. McLeish.

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McLeish, A.G., Gong, S., Greenfield, P. et al. Microbial Community Shifts on Organic Rocks of Different Maturities Reveal potential Catabolisers of Organic Matter in Coal. Microb Ecol (2021).

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  • Coalbed methane
  • Coal seam microbiology
  • Biodegradation
  • Subsurface microbiology