Industrial and agricultural activities produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Many bacteria also produce methane as a byproduct of their metabolism. Some of this naturally released methane comes from the ocean, a phenomenon that has long puzzled scientists because there are no known methane-producing organisms living near the ocean's surface.
A team of researchers from MIT and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has made a discovery that could help to answer this "ocean methane paradox." First, they identified the structure of an enzyme that can produce a compound that is known to be converted to methane. Then, they used that information to show that this enzyme exists in some of the most abundant marine microbes. They believe that this compound is likely the source of methane gas being released into the atmosphere above the ocean.
Ocean-produced methane represents around 4 percent of the total that's discharged into the atmosphere, and a better understanding of where this methane is coming from could help scientists better account for its role in climate change
Solving the mystery
Many bacteria produce methane as a byproduct of their metabolism, but most of these bacteria live in oxygen-poor environments such as the deep ocean or the digestive tract of animals -- not near the ocean's surface.
Several years ago, van der Donk and University of Illinois colleague William Metcalf found a possible clue to the mystery of ocean methane: They discovered a microbial enzyme that produces a compound called methylphosphonate, which can become methane when a phosphate molecule is cleaved from it. This enzyme was found in a microbe called Nitrosopumilus maritimus, which lives near the ocean surface, but the enzyme was not readily identified in other ocean microbes as one would have expected it to be.
Van der Donk's team knew the genetic sequence of the enzyme, known as methylphosphonate synthase (MPnS), which allowed them to search for other versions of it in the genomes of other microbes. However, every time they found a potential match, the enzyme turned out to be a related enzyme called hydroxyethylphosphonate dioxygenase (HEPD), which generates a product that is very similar to methylphosphonate but cannot be cleaved to produce methane.
Van der Donk asked Drennan, an expert in determining chemical structures of proteins, if she could try to reveal the structure of MPnS, in hopes that it would help them find more variants of the enzyme in other bacteria.
An abundant enzyme
By searching databases of genetic sequences from thousands of microbes, the researchers found hundreds of enzymes with the same structural configuration seen in their original MPnS enzyme. Furthermore, all of these were found in microbes that live in the ocean, and one was found in a strain of an extremely abundant ocean microbe known as Pelagibacter ubique.
It is still unknown what function this enzyme and its product serve in ocean bacteria. Methylphosphonates are believed to be incorporated into fatty molecules called phosphonolipids, which are similar to the phospholipids that make up cell membranes.