Methanogenesis: Ecology


The ecology of methane is a product of both nonbiogenic and biogenic processes. While methane arises from anthropogenic release and methane hydrates, it is the underlying biological process of methanogenesis that serves as the primary source of methane within various environments. Years of study have revealed that methanogenic Archaea provide an essential metabolic link between aerobic and anaerobic environments in the global carbon cycle as part of microbial consortia that recycle biomass. The diverse physiological potential identified among numerous methanogenic species and their genomes translates into unique ecology for disparate species and numerous possible habitats for methanogenesis to occur. Community‐level interactions including syntrophy and interspecies competition greatly influence the ecology of methanogenesis. Understanding methanogenesis and the impact of microbial interactions on this process offers an opportunity to gain significant insight into environmental events such as global warming.

Key Concepts

  • Biogenic methane production or methanogenesis occurs in a wide range of habitats.
  • Metagenomic studies are rapidly increasing knowledge regarding the diversity and metabolic potential of methanogens as well as interactions among microbes found within methanogenic communities.
  • Methanoarchaeal ecology offers a model for understanding syntrophic interactions such as interspecies electron transfer using either carriers (e.g. hydrogen and formate) or direct electron transfer (e.g. pili and abiotic conductive material).
  • Community‐level interactions are critical for methanogenesis and global geochemical cycles.
  • Climate change exerts a strong effect on methanogenesis and atmospheric methane levels.
  • New technologies developed through metabolic engineering of methanoarchaea hold promise for biomass conversion and alternative fuel development.

Keywords: methanogen; syntrophy; hydrogen; methane; anaerobic

Figure 1. Phylogenetic relationships of life. Ribosomal RNA comparisons divide biology into three domains of life, Eubacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. Archaea can be further separated into two kingdoms, Crenarchaeota and Euryarchaeota. Methanogens are prominent members of the Euryarchaeota kingdom.
Figure 2. Microbial food chain in anaerobic environments. Three types of microbes are required for the decomposition of complex biomass to methane and carbon dioxide. The principle intermediates and the major route of carbon flow are shown in red.
Figure 3. Effect of hydrogen partial pressure on the free energy of methanogenesis, sulfate reduction or acetate production using hydrogen. The equations for the reactions are given in Table. The dots show typical hydrogen thresholds for various microbial groups where these reactions become energetically favourable. Adapted from Zinder SH 1993 © Springer Science and Business Media.


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Barber, Robert D(Apr 2016) Methanogenesis: Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000475.pub3]