U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

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Hydrogenation of Organic Matter as a Terminal Electron Sink Sustains High CO2:CH4 Production Ratios during Anaerobic Decomposition
Published: October 01, 2017
Posted: January 23, 2018

Environmental metabolomics suggest a mechanism that controls methane production from peatlands.

The Science
In freshwater wetlands such as peatlands, soils become anoxic at the surface and the majority of organic matter is decomposed through microbial consortia that are believed to primarily terminate in methanogenesis or methane (CH4) production. In peat from high latitude Sphagnum-dominated peatlands that are critical to the global carbon cycle, state-of-the-art environmental metabolomics measurements revealed extensive hydrogenation of organic matter which may serve as a predominant mechanism for producing carbon dioxide (CO2) without CH4, thereby explaining why less CH4 is produced relative to CO2 in many northern peatlands.

The Impact
Based on evidence of organic matter hydrogenation in field samples and peat incubations, we hypothesize new pathways for organic matter degradation in peatlands, whereby electrons are deposited to the organic matter itself rather than to CH4. This mechanism has also been observed to reduce CH4 production in the cow rumen. An examination of past research on animal hosts, suggests many parallels between the chemical and microbiological hydrogenation of organic matter between peatlands and the rumen. Because CH4 has a sustained flux warming potential about 45 times higher than that of CO2, mechanisms that alter CH4 production ratios during peat mineralization have important implications for environmental change.

These results highlight the utility of an “environmental metabolomics” approach which takes advantage of analytical chemistry assets at DOE’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), for identifying microbial processes in organic matter decomposition that have importance in human and animal health as well as in the role of wetlands in environmental change.

Peatlands store 1/3 of soil organic carbon (SOC). It has been hypothesized that environmental change will increase the amount of CH4 produced from organic matter decomposition. In the inorganic electron acceptor deficient environment of Sphagnum-dominated peatlands, classical models of anaerobic decomposition suggest that peat mineralization should produce CO2 and CH4 in equal quantities, i.e. CO2:CH4 = 1. While this ratio has been observed during anaerobic decomposition in many wetlands or aquatic environments (e.g., landfills, lake sediments, some fens), numerous investigations from Sphagnum-dominated bogs across the globe have found CO2:CH4 to be much greater than 1. A research team from Georgia Tech used cutting-edge metabolomics techniques, which take advantage of advanced analytical chemistry instruments at EMSL, to provide evidence for ubiquitous hydrogenation of diverse unsaturated compounds that serve as organic electron acceptors in peat, thereby providing the necessary electron balance to sustain CO2:CH4 production >1. In contrast to previously proposed mechanisms, our mechanism adds electrons to C-C double bonds in SOC thereby serving as 1) a terminal electron sink, 2) a mechanism for degrading complex unsaturated organic molecules, and 3) a means to alleviate the toxicity of unsaturated aromatic acids. We propose that organic matter hydrogenation is a major mechanism that modulates the amount of methane that is released from peatlands. Our results have important implications for environmental change, because of the divergent greenhouse warming potential of the two important greenhouse gases emitted from peatlands, CH4 and CO2.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov (301-903-0289)

Paul Bayer
Paul.bayer@science.doe.gov (301-903-5324)

(PI Contact)
Joel E. Kostka
Georgia Institute of Technology

Paul J. Hanson
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy under contract #DE-AC05-00OR22725. Work conducted by JEK, JPC, and RMW was supported by contract # DE-SC0012088 and LP-M, CMZ, JKK, and SDB by contract DE-SC0008092 from the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (OBER), Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) Program, under U.S. Department of Energy contract # DE-SC0012088. OBER also funds the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE Office of Science user facility.

Wilson, R.M, M.M. Tfaily, and V.I Rich, et al. “Hydrogenation of organic matter as a terminal electron sink sustains high CO2:CH4 production ratios during anaerobic decomposition.” Organic Geochemistry, 112: 22-32 (2017). [DOI: 10.1016/jorggeochem.2017.06.011]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling
  • Research Area: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL)

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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