Professor Colin Murrell

Could gas eating bugs combat climate change?

By Victoria Ellis - 27 September 2012

Single-celled organisms live in all types of environmental conditions; from hot springs to industrial effluent and sewage outfalls.  But could tools being developed in Norwich help identify which microbes might clean up pollutants and improve the environment?

Professor Colin Murrell is leading an initiative at the Norwich Research Park that aims to identify environmental responses to climate change.  The Earth and Life Sciences Alliance (ELSA) pulls together expertise from across the Park and has been awarded £750,000 from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

An eminent microbiologist, Prof Murrell has spent the last 28 years building up a strong research group at the University of Warwick. He was attracted to the NorwichResearchPark for its diversity of microbiologists – probably the highest concentration in the UK.

He is establishing a laboratory at the University of East Anglia (UEA) that has already attracted inward investment and created six new jobs.  Other investors include the Marine Microbiology Initiative and the Natural Environment Research Council for research on environmental microbiology.

Prof Murrell admits that he had not anticipated moving on from Warwick but became excited by the possibilities in Norwich and of ELSA, which provides a wider context for microbiology.

He adds: “Having access to scientists who can see the big picture as well as the tiny detail is very useful.  It is easy in science to become increasingly specialised. The interest for me in Norwich is to see how microbiology fits into global strategies such as those for food security and response to climate change.”

Prof Murrell’s area of interest is identification of crucial microbes: “The big challenge of environmental sciences is trying to work out ‘who eats what, when and why’ in the environment.  When this becomes apparent, it is possible to do something about it.

“All natural systems have feedback mechanisms, if you can understand what these are then you can help mitigate the effects of global warming and climate change.

“My research focuses on microbes that can feed on greenhouse gases such as methane, which is a cause of climate change. Although micro-organisms are responsible for driving the biogeochemical cycling of elements, there are very few methods of identifying which are the most important ones in the environment and this is why our work is so valuable.

“We have developed a method of identifying bacteria that can grow on methane. We feed microbes heavy carbon-13 methane and the ones we are interested in are those that incorporate the carbon-13 into their DNA. We can separate them out and classify them using a gene probing and sequence analysis technique called DNA Stable Isotope Probing.

“The funding we have received will further develop this work to help create tools that can be used to identify both harmful and beneficial microbes.  The cost of sequencing is falling all the time so we should be able to develop tests that are widely applicable.”

In the future, it might be possible to use the tool to enable rapid identification of microbes that can break down chemicals contaminating water supplies, soils and the marine environment, including oil spills.

Additionally, there are many micro-organisms in the marine environment that have unknown properties, providing an untapped reservoir of new materials.  Being able to categorise them effectively opens up possibilities of using these microbes as the basis for new industries.

Prof Murrell explains that strategies to reduce greenhouse gases, such as methane, will be enhanced through the work of ELSA.

“Knowledge of the microbiology of elemental and nutrient cycles is core to our understanding of the environment.

“Cutting the emissions of greenhouse gases and gases that harm the Earth’s atmosphere is essential. Understanding how microbes can feed on these chemicals before they are released to the atmosphere is essential if we are to reduce the greenhouse effect and prevent the potentially catastrophic effects of steep rises in the Earth’s temperature over the next 50 years,” he concludes.

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