Indexed on: 30 Apr '14Published on: 30 Apr '14Published in: Nature
The climate-active gas methane is generated both by biological processes and by thermogenic decomposition of fossil organic material, which forms methane and short-chain alkanes, principally ethane, propane and butane. In addition to natural sources, environments are exposed to anthropogenic inputs of all these gases from oil and gas extraction and distribution. The gases provide carbon and/or energy for a diverse range of microorganisms that can metabolize them in both anoxic and oxic zones. Aerobic methanotrophs, which can assimilate methane, have been considered to be entirely distinct from utilizers of short-chain alkanes, and studies of environments exposed to mixtures of methane and multi-carbon alkanes have assumed that disparate groups of microorganisms are responsible for the metabolism of these gases. Here we describe the mechanism by which a single bacterial strain, Methylocella silvestris, can use methane or propane as a carbon and energy source, documenting a methanotroph that can utilize a short-chain alkane as an alternative to methane. Furthermore, during growth on a mixture of these gases, efficient consumption of both gases occurred at the same time. Two soluble di-iron centre monooxygenase (SDIMO) gene clusters were identified and were found to be differentially expressed during bacterial growth on these gases, although both were required for efficient propane utilization. This report of a methanotroph expressing an additional SDIMO that seems to be uniquely involved in short-chain alkane metabolism suggests that such metabolic flexibility may be important in many environments where methane and short-chain alkanes co-occur.