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Methane-consuming archaebacteria in marine sediments


Large amounts of methane are produced in marine sediments but are then consumed before contacting aerobic waters or the atmosphere1. Although no organism that can consume methane anaerobically has ever been isolated, biogeochemical evidence indicates that the overall process involves a transfer of electrons from methane to sulphate and is probably mediated by several organisms, including a methanogen (operating in reverse) and a sulphate-reducer (using an unknown intermediate substrate)2. Here we describe studies of sediments related to a decomposing methane hydrate. These provide strong evidence that methane is being consumed by archaebacteria that are phylogenetically distinct from known methanogens. Specifically, lipid biomarkers that are commonly characteristic of archaea are so strongly depleted in carbon-13 that methane must be the carbon source, rather than the metabolic product, for the organisms that have produced them. Parallel gene surveys of small-subunit ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) indicate the predominance of a new archael group which is peripherally related to the methanogenic orders Methanomicrobiales and Methanosarcinales.

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Figure 1: Reconstructed-ion-current chromatograms of trimethylsilylated total lipid extracts from a, a sample 13–15?cm below the sediment surface at a site of active methane seepage (PC26, Eel River Basin) and b, a control sample 33–36?cm below the sediment surface in the same basin but remote from any site of methane release (HPC 5).
Figure 2: Electron-impact mass spectrum of peak 2, Fig. 1a.
Figure 3: Phylogenetic analysis of archaeal ribosomal rRNA sequences recovered from seep sediments in the Eel River Basin.


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We thank C. Johnson and L. Houghton for isotopic analyses; D. Orange and K.Kvenvolden for collecting some of the sediment samples; P. D. Nichols and R. Summons for an extract of M. burtonii; A. Teske, J. Rullkötter, R. E. Summons, and T. Hoehler for discussions; and the officers and crew of the Pt. Lobos, and pilots of the ROV Ventana, for expert assistance. K.H. is supported by a research fellowship from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. J.M.H., S.P.S., and laboratory expenses were supported by NASA. The Eel River expedition and E.F.D. and P.G.B. supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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Correspondence to John M. Hayes.

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Hinrichs, KU., Hayes, J., Sylva, S. et al. Methane-consuming archaebacteria in marine sediments. Nature 398, 802–805 (1999).

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