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60-Second Science

Sea Bacteria Produce Methane

Scientists thought that only bacteria that live where there's no oxygen produced methane, a greenhouse gas. But new research shows that ocean bacteria also give off the gas. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat even better than carbon dioxide. It comes from a variety of sources, including fossil fuel production and even farming. Cows give off methane, ya know, after they eat. Even the surface waters of the ocean contain substantial amounts of this gas. But where that marine methane comes was a mystery. Until now.

Scientists collected seawater off the coast of Hawaii. And they found that bacteria that live in these waters scarf up certain phosphorous-containing chemicals, and then release methane as a byproduct. The results appear online in the journal Nature Geoscience. What’s surprising is that scientists had previously thought that methane’s only produced by bacteria that live in places where there’s no oxygen, think of the smell you associate with a swamp or with the muck at the bottom of a murky pond. This marine methane could contribute to global warming by adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. What’s worse, the hotter it is, the more stressed these seafaring bacteria get, and the more methane they’re likely to put out. Which was certainly not the kind of feedback that atmospheric scientists were hoping to get.

—Karen Hopkin

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