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Box 1. How could we have missed this?

From the following article:

Methane finding baffles scientists

Quirin Schiermeier

Nature 439, 128(12 January 2006)

doi:10.1038/439128a

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The finding that plants are a major source of methane has left many scientists struggling to believe it could have been missed before — and wondering what else might have been overlooked if it is true.

Keppler points out that detecting the methane was far from easy, as the amount released by individual plants is tiny compared with levels already in the atmosphere. His team were studying chemical reactions in ageing plants, and acted on a hunch after they found hints of methane from leaves left in an incubator. To check their finding, they carried out studies in methane-free air, and irradiated plants to rule out microbial activity as a cause.

But the discovery has made climate researchers wonder how much they really understand about greenhouse-gas sources and sinks. "I don't think there will be many more big surprises," says Drew Shindell, a climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. "But I also wouldn't bet that this is the last one."

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Others want to wait until it becomes clear exactly how the methane is produced before they jump to any conclusions. "My feeling is that this could be very important," says David Beerling, a palaeoclimatologist at the University of Sheffield, UK. "But inferring a methane source by incubating leaves or placing chambers over plants can mean the nature of the source is quite uncertain."

"I don't know what to make of it," adds Colin Prentice, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, UK. "My first reaction is scepticism. I find it hard to believe that we missed this."

Q.S. & M.P.

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