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Activity-based, genome-resolved metagenomics uncovers key populations and pathways involved in subsurface conversions of coal to methane

October 21, 2021

Microbial metabolisms and interactions that facilitate subsurface conversions of recalcitrant carbon to methane are poorly understood. We deployed an in situ enrichment device in a subsurface coal seam in the Powder River Basin (PRB), USA, and used BONCAT-FACS-Metagenomics to identify translationally active populations involved in methane generation from a variety of coal-derived aromatic hydrocarbons. From the active fraction, high-quality metagenome-assembled genomes (MAGs) were recovered for the acetoclastic methanogen, Methanothrix paradoxum, and a novel member of the Chlorobi with the potential to generate acetate via the Pta-Ack pathway. Members of the Bacteroides and Geobacter also encoded Pta-Ack and together, all four populations had the putative ability to degrade ethylbenzene, phenylphosphate, phenylethanol, toluene, xylene, and phenol. Metabolic reconstructions, gene analyses, and environmental parameters also indicated that redox fluctuations likely promote facultative energy metabolisms in the coal seam. The active “Chlorobi PRB” MAG encoded enzymes for fermentation, nitrate reduction, and multiple oxygenases with varying binding affinities for oxygen. “M. paradoxum PRB” encoded an extradiol dioxygenase for aerobic phenylacetate degradation, which was also present in previously published Methanothrix genomes. These observations outline underlying processes for bio-methane from subbituminous coal by translationally active populations and demonstrate activity-based metagenomics as a powerful strategy in next generation physiology to understand ecologically relevant microbial populations.

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