There are already available non-biological methods of oxidising methane and turning it into methanol; however current methods are too costly to be workable. But if scientists can learn how to capitalise on the natural systems by which bacteria carry out this process, then it may be possible to transform this greenhouse gas into a viable biofuel.
Lead author Chris Dennison, Professor of Biological Chemistry at Newcastle University explains: “Methane is such a useful and plentiful commodity but we need more cost effective methods to unlock its potential. Using bacteria could be the best option so a better knowledge of how these bacteria operate is required. As copper is so important for the oxidation of methane, all potential applications based on this reactivity requires knowing how methanotrophs acquire and store copper. The discovery of the Csps adds a new dimension to our understanding of this complex process.”
Co-author Colin Murrell, Professor in Environmental Microbiology at the University of East Anglia, adds: “We have known that copper is a vital element for biological methane oxidation for over thirty years and this new information will really help us to formulate new strategies for exploiting these bacteria both in the laboratory and in the environment.”
To address the 21st century’s environmental challenges, we need tools to perform research and a (well-funded) vibrant academic and industrial base engaged in bringing the best science to Diamond. Dr Neil Paterson, a post-doctoral research associate on I24 and co-author on the paper, highlights the significance of synchrotron light to supporting this research: “In this case, Diamond’s tuneable X-ray energy allowed us to use the intrinsic copper ions within the protein to solve the crystal structure by X-ray diffraction and also define their oxidation state through X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy.”
Whilst this work is still in its early stages, the discovery of the Csp1 protein is an important step forward in learning how to unlock the potential of bacteria to transform methane into biofuel. Methane availability is rising as the extraction of natural gas booms, and more of it is escaping into the atmosphere, and these finding constitute a small but significant step forwards in finding a way to make the world a cleaner, greener place.