Methane-Eating Bacteria Discovered Under The Antarctic Shelf

Shackleton Mountain in the west of the Antarctic Peninsula on a cloudy summer day. Pretty but unrelated to this study. Dmytro Pylypenko/Shutterstock

Deep beneath the ice of the South Pole exists a lifeform that could help us manage greenhouse gas emissions. The bacteria that live there survive by digesting methane, acting as a phenomenal biofilter between the frozen environment and the rest of the planet.

In 2013, an international and interdisciplinary team of scientists drilled 800 meters (2,600 feet) into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, where they reached Lake Whillans. The researchers collected samples of water and sediments that had been isolated from the atmosphere for many thousands of years. Their results are published in Nature Geoscience.

"Not only is this important for the global climate, but methane oxidation could be a widespread means of life for microbes in the deep, permanently cold biosphere beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet," lead author Alexander Michaud, from Montana State University, said in a statement.

The team looked at the genome of the bacteria and at the concentration of methane in the sample. They believe there is a large reservoir of methane under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and, if their findings are correct, the bacteria may be helping to prevent the gas from releasing into the atmosphere.

While there’s less methane than carbon dioxide, it’s actually a much more potent greenhouse gas. Over a period of 20 years, it has warmed the planet 86 times as much as CO2. This means that if there are indeed methane deposits, it’s better to keep them from getting into the atmosphere.

Through methane oxidation, these bacteria living in Lake Whillans may be able to consume more than 99 percent of the methane, representing a significant carbon sink.

The presence of this complex environment also raises the intriguing possibility of life on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, although this is still early on all fronts. We have no concrete evidence of life outside Earth and we have barely started to study what lies beneath the Antarctic ice.

"It took more than a decade of scientific and logistical planning to collect the first clean samples from an Antarctic subglacial environment, but the results have transformed the way we view the Antarctic continent," added co-author John Priscu of Montana State University.

Understanding potential sources of methane and where methane can “sink” might help us refine our climate models and maybe even find ways to improve the capture of greenhouse gases.

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