In surprise twist, story of how microbes produce methane ends with uncommon “radical”
Like the poet, microbes that make methane are taking chemists on a road less traveled: Of two competing ideas for how microbes make the main component of natural gas, the winning chemical reaction involves a molecule less favored by previous research, something called a methyl radical.
Reported today in the journal Science, the work is important for understanding not only how methane is made, but also how to make things from it.
“Methane is an interesting substance because it’s both a fossil fuel and a potentially renewable fuel that can come from microbes,” said study lead Stephen Ragsdale of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “In addition, detailed knowledge of the chemical steps involved in making methane could lead to major breakthroughs in designing energy efficient catalysts for converting methane into liquid fuels and other chemicals.”
This study demonstrates one of a very few known instances of nature using a highly reactive methyl radical in its biological machinations.
“We were totally surprised,” said computational chemist Simone Raugei, a coauthor at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We thought we’d find evidence for other mechanisms.”