Novel facultative Methylocella strains are active methane consumers at terrestrial natural gas seeps

Research paper by Muhammad Farhan Ul Haque, Andrew T. Crombie, J. Colin Murrell

Indexed on: 04 Oct '19Published on: 04 Oct '19Published in: Microbiome


Natural gas seeps contribute to global climate change by releasing substantial amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane and other climate-active gases including ethane and propane to the atmosphere. However, methanotrophs, bacteria capable of utilising methane as the sole source of carbon and energy, play a significant role in reducing the emissions of methane from many environments. Methylocella-like facultative methanotrophs are a unique group of bacteria that grow on other components of natural gas (i.e. ethane and propane) in addition to methane but a little is known about the distribution and activity of Methylocella in the environment. The purposes of this study were to identify bacteria involved in cycling methane emitted from natural gas seeps and, most importantly, to investigate if Methylocella-like facultative methanotrophs were active utilisers of natural gas at seep sites.The community structure of active methane-consuming bacteria in samples from natural gas seeps from Andreiasu Everlasting Fire (Romania) and Pipe Creek (NY, USA) was investigated by DNA stable isotope probing (DNA-SIP) using 13C-labelled methane. The 16S rRNA gene sequences retrieved from DNA-SIP experiments revealed that of various active methanotrophs, Methylocella was the only active methanotrophic genus common to both natural gas seep environments. We also isolated novel facultative methanotrophs, Methylocella sp. PC1 and PC4 from Pipe Creek, able to utilise methane, ethane, propane and various non-gaseous multicarbon compounds. Functional and comparative genomics of these new isolates revealed genomic and physiological divergence from already known methanotrophs, in particular, the absence of mxa genes encoding calcium-containing methanol dehydrogenase. Methylocella sp. PC1 and PC4 had only the soluble methane monooxygenase (sMMO) and lanthanide-dependent methanol dehydrogenase (XoxF). These are the first Alphaproteobacteria methanotrophs discovered with this reduced functional redundancy for C-1 metabolism (i.e. sMMO only and XoxF only).Here, we provide evidence, using culture-dependent and culture-independent methods, that Methylocella are abundant and active at terrestrial natural gas seeps, suggesting that they play a significant role in the biogeochemical cycling of these gaseous alkanes. This might also be significant for the design of biotechnological strategies for controlling natural gas emissions, which are increasing globally due to unconventional exploitation of oil and gas.