Novel bacterial proteins from seafloor shine light on climate and astrobiology
Gigatons of greenhouse gas are trapped under the seafloor, and that's a good thing. Around the coasts of the continents, where slopes sink down into the sea, tiny cages of ice trap methane gas, preventing it from escaping and bubbling up into the atmosphere.
While rarely in the news, these ice cage formations, known as methane clathrates, have garnered attention because of their potential to affect climate change. During offshore drilling, methane ice can get stuck in pipes, causing them to freeze and burst. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is thought to have been caused by a buildup of methane clathrates.
"NSF-funded high-performance computing is enabling groundbreaking discoveries that cut across scientific disciplines from biochemistry to astrobiology and beyond"
- Alejandro Suarez
Until now, the biological process behind how methane gas remains stable under the sea has been almost completely unknown. In a new study, a team of Georgia Tech researchers report on a previously unknown class of bacterial proteins that play a crucial role in the formation and stability of methane clathrates.
A team led by Jennifer Glass and Raquel Lieberman showed that these bacterial proteins suppress the growth of methane clathrates as effectively as commercial chemicals currently used in drilling, but are nontoxic, eco-friendly and scalable. Their work, funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, informs the search for life in the solar system, and could increase the safety of transporting natural gas.
The research, published in the journal PNAS Nexus, underscores the importance of fundamental science in studying Earth's natural biological systems and highlights the benefits of collaboration across disciplines.
"NSF-funded high-performance computing is enabling groundbreaking discoveries that cut across scientific disciplines from biochemistry to astrobiology and beyond," said Alejandro Suarez, a program director in NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate. "This investment not only contributes to advancing our understanding of the universe and the world around us, but also empowers the growth of future researchers."
Methane clathrates likely exist throughout the solar system — on the subsurface of Mars, for example, and on icy moons in the outer solar system, such as Europa. The findings indicate that if microbes exist on other planetary bodies, they might produce similar biomolecules to retain liquid water in channels in the clathrate that could sustain life.