Scientists have discovered a microbe in a volcanic hot spring that exhibits an astonishing ability to consume carbon dioxide (CO2) rapidly. These researchers aim to harness the natural capacity of microbes to absorb CO2 as an efficient method for removing the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. While ending fossil fuel consumption is vital for combating the climate crisis, most scientists agree that capturing CO2 from the air is necessary to mitigate future damage.

The newly identified microbe is a cyanobacterium found in volcanic seeps near the Italian island of Vulcano, where CO2 levels in the water are high. The researchers observed that this microbe converted CO2 into biomass more rapidly than any other known cyanobacteria. In addition, the scientists explored hot springs in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, where CO2 concentrations are even higher. The data from this investigation is currently under analysis. The researchers plan to publish all their findings and create a database that combines DNA sequences with preserved samples of the bacteria, making the information available to other scientists.

Dr Braden Tierney, at Weill Cornell Medical College and Harvard Medical School, said: “Our lead collaborator at Harvard isolated this organism that grew astonishingly quickly, compared to other cyanobacteria.”

“The project takes advantage of 3.6bn years of microbial evolution,” he said. “The nice thing about microbes is that they are self-assembling machines. You don’t have that with a lot of the chemical approaches [to CO2 capture].”

One remarkable characteristic of the microbe is that it sinks in water, which could aid in capturing the CO2 it absorbs.

But the microbe was not a silver bullet, Tierney said. “There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change and carbon capture. There will be circumstances where the tree is going to outperform microbes or fungi. But there will also be circumstances where you really want a fast-growing aquatic microbe that sinks,” he said. That might include large, carbon-capturing ponds, he said. The microbe might also be able to produce a useful bioplastic.

The project received funding from Seed Health, a biotechnology company that employs one of the researchers as a consultant. Seed Health specialises in probiotics for human health, has developed a probiotic for bees, and is conducting research on the use of microbial enzymes for plastic degradation.

“Seed Health was founded on the belief that by unlocking the immense potential of the microbiome, we possess the power to make transformative strides in human and planetary health,” said its co-chief executive Raja Dhir. “Our work with Dr Tierney is exactly in line with that mission and may help to unlock new models [for] carbon capture.”

LanzaTech, a US-based company, already employs bacteria to convert CO2 into commercial fuels and chemicals. CyanoCapture, based in the UK and backed by Shell and Elon Musk, is using cyanobacteria to produce biomass and biological oils. Various companies are also exploring the use of algae for biofuel production, although ExxonMobil recently terminated its algae research.

While biofuels release the captured CO2 when burned, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US are investigating the use of bacteria to precipitate carbon-capturing minerals from seawater, effectively sequestering the CO2. Researchers in China are studying a catalyst enzyme found in hot vents on the ocean floor, which exhibits heat resistance and has similar potential.

Bacteria found in caves have demonstrated the ability to convert CO2 into minerals. In another endeavour, scientists are exploring the use of bacteria to reduce CO2 emissions in cement production.



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