CORVALLIS, Ore. The oxygen-rich surface waters of the world's major oceans are supersaturated with methane a powerful greenhouse gas that is roughly 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide yet little is known about the source of this methane.
Now a new study by researchers at Oregon State University demonstrates the ability of some strains of the oceans' most abundant organism SAR11 to generate methane as a byproduct of breaking down a compound for its phosphorus.
Results of the study are being published this week in Nature Communications. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
"Anaerobic methane biogenesis was the only process known to produce methane in the oceans and that requires environments with very low levels of oxygen," said Angelicque "Angel" White, a researcher in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study. "In the vast central gyres of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the surface waters have lots of oxygen from mixing with the atmosphere and yet they also have lots of methane, hence the term 'marine methane paradox.'
"We've now learned that certain strains of SAR11, when starved for phosphorus, turn to a compound known as methylphosphonic acid," White added. "The organisms produce enzymes that can break this compound apart, freeing up phosphorus that can be used for growth and leaving methane behind."
The discovery is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding the Earth's methane cycle, scientists say. It builds on a series of studies conducted by researchers from several institutions around the world over the past several years.
Previous research has shown that adding methylphosphonic acid, or MPn, to seawater produces methane, though no one knew exactly how. Then a laboratory study led by David Karl of the University of Hawaii and OSU's White found that an organism called Trichode
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Oregon State University