SETI bioastro: Fw: Cornell News: Microbial Observatory

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Date: Tue Feb 12 2002 - 16:23:11 PST

----- Original Message -----
Sent: Tuesday, February 12, 2002 4:53 PM
Subject: Cornell News: Microbial Observatory

Cornell biologists aim to grow 'bugs' responsible for greenhouse gas,
methane, in NSF-funded microbial observatory

FOR RELEASE: Feb. 8, 2002

Contact: Roger Segelken
Office: 607-255-9736

ITHACA, N.Y. -- They've been at it for millions of years, but
practically nothing is known about wetlands bacteria that turn
organic matter into the greenhouse gas, methane.

Now a team of Cornell University scientists, aided by a $837,000
Microbial Observatory grant from the National Science Foundation
(NSF), is going after methane-generating bacteria (called
methanogens) and other microbes that help digest dying plants in
anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions of bogs and other wetlands --
aiming to bring 'em back alive.

"Alive is the hard part. We can collect and distinguish the various
methanogens by DNA analysis, but no one has ever cultured and grown
methanogens from acidic wetlands in a laboratory," says Stephen
Zinder, Cornell professor of microbiology. "We need to know more
about the conditions where the methanogens work, especially in the
highly acidic bogs."

If the Cornell researchers succeed in duplicating the carbon-rich,
anaerobic, acidic conditions where the methanogens thrive, Zinder
says, the hard-working bugs could have a future in bioengineering --
perhaps in bioremediation of contaminated sites or in the controlled
production of methane.

Among the gases accumulating in the atmosphere, and purportedly
contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming, methane is
21 times as potent as carbon dioxide, according to the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency. Increasing amounts of methane come
from anthropogenic (or human-based) activity, particularly from
burning coal, cultivating rice, raising livestock and producing
natural gas, as well as from the decaying contents of garbage
landfills. Harder to quantify and predict is "natural" methane
production from wetlands, the possible result of plant growth and
decomposition responding to temperature, carbon dioxide levels and
other fluctuations during global climate change. That's why one of
the observatory sites chosen for the Cornell study is McLean Bog, a
few miles northeast of Cornell's Ithaca campus, where sphagnum moss
and other plant materials have been accumulating for some 13,000
years, ever since a massive chunk of glacier from the last great ice
Age melted and left a kettle-like hole in the surrounding gravel.
Carnivorous pitcher plants and other exotic growth cover the surface
of the bog, but researchers in the Microbial Observatory project are
interested in deeper, more mysterious life-forms. Their goal is to
extract methanogens, and other bacteria that help them flourish, by
breaking down plants and simulating bog conditions, including acidity
of pH 3.6, in the laboratory. (A measurement of pH 3.6 would make a
bog roughly equivalent to the acidity of green olives.)

Other observatory sites are not as acidic, but are just as
intriguing, according to the other co-principal investigator in the
studies, Cornell associate professor of natural resources Joseph
Yavitt, who has studied methane-producing wetlands in the northern
United States since 1992. "We will look at a different type of peat
land called a forested mire -- as in quagmire -- in Tully, N.Y.,"
Yavitt says. "The Tully site is a remnant of the forested mires that
probably existed throughout the Lake Ontario plain before settlers
drained the land. If you look at the mucklands used to raise onions
and other crops south of Lake Ontario, you are seeing the same kind
of soil that began forming 13,000 years ago but without the trees of
a forested mire." Typical mires have lower rates of methane
production and only one methanogen in common with bogs like the
McLean Bog, Yavitt has learned.

Also targeted as a part of the Microbial Observatory project is
Michigan Hollow in Danby, N.Y., where Cornell researchers report a
very high rate of decomposition of plant materials, and the result
is an oily, black substance that is a precursor to coal. Student
participants in the study will visit comparable peat sites in Canada
and Europe and will offer their findings on public web sites about

As for the increasing amount of methane entering the atmosphere,
Zinder says: "If we can understand how microbial populations in peat
lands function, we may be able to predict how methane production will
respond to changing environmental conditions, and that will greatly
improve our ability to forecast trends in atmospheric methane

Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional
information on this news release. Some might not be part of the
Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their
content or availability.

o Cornell Dept. of Natural Resources: <>

o Cornell Dept. of Microbiology: <>

o Methane info from EPA: <>

o Wetlands info from NGS:


The web version of this release, with accompanying photos, may be
found at

Cornell University News Service
Surge 3
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853

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