We’ve seen bacteria eat chlorine and even consume toxic byproducts of biodiesel plants, but researchers at The Ohio State University have found a new strain that takes the cake. These extremophiles literally eat biocide designed to kill them.
This discovery originated in a study focusing on hydraulic fracturing, where researchers suspected that the natural gas extracted from the process was more than was present in the rocks being fractured. Assistant professor of microbiology and biophysics Kelly Wrighton (image left, courtesy The Ohio State University) hypothesized that the extra methane was actually coming from a biological source.
Indeed, the methane was being produced by bacteria living inside the hydraulic equipment. But this presented another mystery – why were there bacteria living there at all? To prevent the machines from gumming up with microbes, the equipment is regularly sterilized with biocides. Wrighton studied the specimens in detail:
“We take all the genes and enzymes in that fluid and create a picture of what the whole microbial community is doing. We can see whether they survive, what they eat and how they interact with each other.”
Wrighton found microbes that produce methane inside the hydraulic fluid. She thinks the key to the mystery is the fact that the equipment injects these bacteria far below the surface during hydraulic fracturing.
“So this means that we’re creating a whole new ecosystem a mile below the surface,” she says in an article released by The Ohio State University. “Not only are we fracturing the rock, we’re giving these organisms a new place to live and food to eat. And in fact, the biocides that we add to inhibit their growth may actually be fueling the production of methane.”
The current hypothesis is that the bacteria have adapted to actually use the biocide as a food source in order to produce methane. This could provide extremely useful for the natural gas industry: adding the right amounts of organisms like these could dramatically increase gas yield. “Hydraulic fracturing is a young industry,” she muses. “It may take decades, but it’s possible that biogenesis will play a role in its future.”
This work was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. For more details on funding for research at Ohio State University, peruse our Ohio State University Funding Report:
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