Methanotrophy in Extreme Environments


Methanotrophy is the ability of a few prokaryotes to grow on methane as a sole energy source. Aerobic methanotrophic bacteria are active in natural environments with pH values ranging from 1 to 11, temperatures ranging from 0 to 72°C and salinities up to 30%. In addition, anaerobic methanotrophs are found in permanently cold ocean sediments at temperatures down to −1°C, and in geothermally heated sediments at temperatures up to 90°C. Several extremophilic species of aerobic methanotrophs have been isolated and studied in pure culture, including thermophiles, psychrophiles, acidophiles, alkaliphiles and halophiles. The knowledge of methanotrophs and their ecology in extreme environments is summarized, with particular attention on bacteria with multiple extremophilic phenotypes that are found in acidic subarctic peatlands and in acidic geothermal springs.

Key concepts

  • Methane is oxidized by prokaryotes in diverse environments, including some with extreme temperatures, pH values and salinities.

  • The ecology of extremophilic methanotrophs has been studied using cultivation‐independent molecular methods.

  • Extremophilic aerobic methanotrophs have been isolated and studied in pure culture, but anaerobic methanotrophs have not yet been isolated.

  • Some aerobic methanotrophs combine multiple extremophilic phenotypes.

  • Biogeochemical and molecular ecology studies suggest that sulphate‐reducing methanotrophs are capable of living under a similar range of temperatures as are aerobic methanotrophs.

Keywords: methane; methanotroph; extremophile; acidophile; thermophile

Figure 1.

Phylogenetic tree of aerobic methanotrophic bacteria constructed based on partial sequences (495 positions) of the pmoA gene encoding a subunit of pMMO. The tree contains sequences from pure cultures along with sequences obtained via cultivation‐independent studies of various environments. Known extremophilic species and sequences obtained from extreme environments are shown in bold. The three major phylogenetic groups of aerobic methanotrophs are noted by broad arcs. The tree was constructed in TREE‐PUZZLE, a computer program package for quartet maximum‐likelihood phylogenetic analysis, using the Schöniger–von Haeseler distance correction method (Schmidt et al., ). Nodes are supported by greater than 50% based on 5000 puzzling steps. Where the support value for a bifurcation is less than 50% a multifurcation is drawn. The scale bar represents 0.1 change per nucleotide position.

Figure 2.

The methane cycle in several extreme environments. The illustrations show the primary origins of methane in each environment and the major groups of methanotrophs present. The solid horizontal line near the top of each panel indicates the sediment–water or water–air interface that serves as the source of O2. Genera of extremophilic aerobic methanotrophs are indicated beside the aerobic process. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but only to include the most important genera. Grey lines indicate that the anaerobic process has not been observed in most habitats, but may occur depending on the availability of electron acceptors.



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Further Reading

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Dunfield, Peter F(Sep 2009) Methanotrophy in Extreme Environments. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021897]