Soil bacteria, not plants responsible for methane emissions

January 15th, 2009 - 1:00 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Jan 15 (IANS) Experiments have shown that soil bacteria, not plants, were responsible for large-scale methane emissions. A comprehensive probe, sparked by a 2006 report in Nature that said plants accounted for roughly half the total methane emissions and led by University of South Australia molecular biologist Ellen Nisbet, identified soil bacteria as the real villian.

“At a time when people are so concerned about the environment and the problem of global warming, any assertion that plants could be responsible for an increase in methane was really alarming,” Nesbit said.

“I’m the daughter of an atmospheric chemist and am a molecular biologist myself, so my first thought was that it was very strange. So, I got together a group of colleagues to investigate.”

With fellow researchers from the universities of Cambridge, London, Stockholm, Oxford and Bristol, the team set up a range of experiments to clear the record for plants.

What the researchers found was that plants were only ever a passive transmitter of the methane present in other places - for example methane in water, soaked into the soil, could be taken up by a plant and released - but the methane was not produced by the plant. In fact it is soil based bacteria that manufacture methane.

“Publication of these study results is extremely important because the last thing we need is for people to believe they have any justification for harming the planet,” Nisbet said, according to a University of South Australia release.

“Forests are immensely precious and growing plants remove enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each day through photosynthesis - carbon dioxide that would otherwise be causing global warming,” she said.

The results were published in Transactions of the Royal Society this week.

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