Cal State Channel Islands Scientist Studies Microbes Which May Consume Methane

Mar 1, 2016

It took crews more than three months to seal the gas leak in the San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch which forced thousands of people from their homes.

Aside from plugging the leak, there wasn’t much which could be done to deal with the gas spewing into the atmosphere.

A Ventura County researcher says nature may give us a new tool in dealing with problems like this, in the form of methane munching microbes.

That researcher is Cal State Channel Islands biologist Dr. Patricia Tavormina, who's research today has her walking on a narrow trail on a section of Aliso Canyon.

She’s carrying a plastic pipe and a sledgehammer, looking for a good spot to take a soil sample.

"I might try to dig there," she says, "yeah, I think I'm going to right over here by this Yucca"

The researcher finds what looks like a good spot, and begins hammering the pipe into the ground:  "This is a two foot pole, and i try to get it down 19 inches"

Tavormina has been taking hundreds of soil samples from the Porter Ranch area for the last few months.

She is investigating a unique idea: tiny, naturally occurring microbes may be responding to what’s being called the largest accidental gas release in U.S. history by consuming of the methane gas which was released.

"A lot of people know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and a lot of people know that plants can consume carbon dioxide," she says, but"what a lot of people don't know is that there's also organisms that can consume methane."

Tavormina says some of this methane munching microbial activity was documented during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. She was involved in that research.

Tavormina thinks the bacteria’s potential is exciting, because not only could it help reduce methane in the atmosphere, it would create some environmentally friendly by-products.

"Just as we can use algae and plants to turn carbon dioxide into fuels or other products," she says, "there's actually a whole range of microbial organisms that can take methane and convert it not only to lipids that could be used to generate fuel but also these methane consuming microbes."

"Actually some of them, they make a biodegradable plastic," Tavormina adds.

The researcher pulls the pipe she hammered into the ground out of the hillside, and carries it over to a sheet of plastic. She has dozens of sample bottles in racks.

Using a razor blade, Tavormina cuts open heavy tape which sealed the pipe shut, and we see soil:

"It's really dry and light at the top, but as you go further down you can see its a little denser, might even start to see some red," she says. "We start sampling and partitioning it up for DNA, which tells us who's there, and RNA,  which tells us who's active."

The Cal State Channel Islands researcher says they’re trying to learn more about the specific microbes involved, but say they may be something which was previously undocumented.

"There's a lineage of bacterium that is enriched near the spill, and this lineage hasn't been described in soils before," she says, "but its closest relative is deep-sea bacterium that may be involved in alkane degradation. We're starting to see these sort-of parallels processes  at play, which is really exciting."

So, if we had another accident like the Porter Ranch leak, could the microbes potentially be used as a way of mitigating the methane?

"We need to get more data to be able to say that firmly," she says, "the early results indicate that that might be going on. It does seem to be that its enriching at the source, but we need to process additional samples to get an idea about the degree of that."

Tavormina says while more research which is needed, the potential appears huge. The researcher says the Southern California Gas Company is interested, and has given her access to sites near the leaking well to do sampling.

"This excites me, it excites a number of people in the field," she says," because now instead of methane being a product of fossil fuel consumption, now we can reframe how we use our resources to make methane a feed-stock to make plastic."

"That would do two things: it draws methane out of the atmosphere, it also reduces our reliance on petroleum to make plastic," Tavormina adds.

The researcher says perhaps something good can come out of the Porter Ranch crisis, by at least providing some vital data which might give us a way of dealing with future accidents of this type.