Briefly

Stuff that matters

slick trick

REUTERS/Sean Gardner

Tired of waiting on humans, microbes cooperate to clean up our messes.

Microscopic critters are doing our dirty work, by digesting pollutants including methane in the soil and oil slicks at sea. They notably lent a hand after Deepwater Horizon. Now, a newly-discovered species is sopping up natural gas in California, after the nation’s largest-ever leak.

This new species of microbe eats ethane, a relative of methane and a minor ingredient in natural gas. Even better, it may also help other soil bacteria digest methane, scientists say, helping keep the potent greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. 

“There is definitely precedent in the microbial world for this interspecies interaction,” says microbiologist Patricia Tavormina. We already know some ocean-based microbes digest methane by working in concert with other species.

You may want to picture these wee beasties as Danes snuggled around a hygge fire in cheery, communal spirit (in reality, #bacterlyfe tends to make dog-eat-dog look tame by comparison, but bear with me). If these microbes can do it, maybe there’s hope for us multicellular beings, too.