Two types of symbiotic microbes that live near the ocean floor work together to consume large amounts of methane released from vents. But how they do it surprised scientists: They use electrons to share energy.
This allows them to consume up to 80 percent of methane from deep ocean vents, mitigating the release of harmful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Recent work at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has shown that these partners can still effectively accomplish this challenging task, even when not in direct contact with one another, by using electrons to share energy over long distances.
It’s the first time researchers have documented direct interspecies electron transport–the movement of electrons from a cell through the external environment to another cell type–for microorganisms in nature.
The discovery could have many applications. Not only do researchers now better understand how these important organisms mitigate the release of a harmful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, but they might also be able to manipulate or engineer the organisms for potential industrial applications involving the use of methane as fuel.
It also opens the door to studying electron transport in other symbiotic relationships in the environment—a possibility that was not considered before.
The researchers describe the discovery in the journal Nature.