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Methane-consuming bacteria could be the future of fuel

Researchers at the University of East Anglia have helped discover how bacteria turn methane gas into a useable fuel - liquid methanol.

Methanotrophic bacteria (or ‘methanotrophs’) oxidize methane and convert it to methanol. In doing so, not only are they removing a dangerous greenhouse gas from the environment, but creating a sustainable fuel for cars, electricity and more.

But exactly how these bacteria naturally perform such a complex reaction has been a mystery.

Now, a study published in Science, provides a major leap forward in understanding how bacteria methane-to-methanol conversion happens.

Research led by Northwestern University (US) in collaboration with UEA found that the enzyme responsible for the methane-methanol conversion catalyses this reaction at a site that contains just one copper ion.

The findings could lead to newly designed, human-made catalysts that can convert the potent greenhouse gas into readily usable methanol with the same effortless mechanism.

The research identifies the type of copper centre involved and lays the foundation for determining how nature carries out one of its most challenging reactions.

Current industrial processes to catalyse a methane-to-methanol reaction require tremendous pressure and extreme temperatures, reaching higher than 1,300 degrees Celsius.

Methanotrophs, however, perform the reaction at room temperature and ‘for free’.

While copper sites are known to catalyse methane-to-methanol conversion in human-made materials, methane-to-methanol catalysis at a monocopper site under ambient conditions is unprecedented.

Research at UEA was led by Dr Fraser MacMillan, from UEA’s School of Chemistry, at the university’s Henry Wellcome Unit for Biological Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR).

He said: “This cutting-edge research showcases our expertise in dipolar spectroscopy here at UEA - measuring long range distances in dynamic bio-macromolecular machines.

“Our researchers have had a forward-looking perspective long before environmentally friendly technologies became standard - in a similar vein to the development of electric cars.

“Our research has been extensively supported by funding from the Welcome Trust, the Royal Society and in this case through UEA itself thanks to the ongoing support of our current Vice Chancellor Prof David Richardson who, in his former role as Dean of Science, supported investment in new cryogen-free technologies.

“This commitment allowed advanced biophysical studies to be performed in an environmentally and cost effect manner, leading to this important publication.”   

Particulate methane monooxygenase contains only mononuclear copper centres’ is published in the journal Science on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

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