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September 28, 2021

Methane: the breakfast of champion trees

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Methane is a dirty word in the greenhouse gas stakes as it is a powerful player who wears the cloak and dagger of the bad guy for global warming – but it looks like the common Paperbark, Melaleuca quinquenervia, might be the hero.

A research study lead by Southern Cross University scientists has discovered an unlikely microscopic ally in the battle to reduce the amount of methane gas in the atmosphere.

A world first

In a world-first, published in Nature Communications, Australian researchers reveal the unique, methane-eating microbial communities living in the bark of the common Australian tree species. Importantly, these microbes mitigated a large proportion of the methane released from the Paperbark trees, consuming about one-third of total methane emissions.

Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas – about 45 times more so than carbon dioxide. While trees help lock up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, this discovery reveals some trees also play an important role in regulating the methane gas cycle.

A ground-breaking discovery

Dr Luke Jeffrey: ‘Our scientific understanding of the global methane cycle may need a re-think.’ Photo supplied.

Dr Luke Jeffrey, lead author and post-doctoral researcher from Southern Cross University says this is a ground-breaking discovery that opens up a whole new area of research about novel microbes living in the bark of trees and their role in regulating methane. ‘It suggests that our scientific understanding of the global methane cycle may need a re-think.’

The scientists from the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering made the discovery while on a field study in wetlands on the far north coast of New South Wales.

Professor Scott Johnston says that when they first saw large amounts of methane coming out of the bark of Melaleuca trees, they wondered whether there might be bacteria residing in bark making an easy living by eating the abundant methane. ‘Now we know.’

Three years of careful experiment design

Professor Damien Maher says it took more than three years of careful experiment design and systematic method development to identify the microbes and resolve their role in consuming methane. ‘It represents an exciting new frontier in our understanding of how trees influence methane in the atmosphere.’

The research is a collaboration between researchers from Southern Cross University, Monash University and University of Melbourne. It was supported by two research grants to Southern Cross University from the Australian Research Council (ARC Linkage Project Maximising Carbon Sequestration in Freshwater Wetlands), and kicks off the start of a new ARC Discovery Project (Tree-mediated methane fluxes: A new frontier in the global carbon cycle) in collaboration with colleagues from Monash University, University of Melbourne and University of Western Sydney.

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