A Moment of Science

Curbing Methane Emissions With Microbes

Cows, goats, and sheep require symbiotic microbes to help digest the plant biomass that they eat, and some of these microbes make methane.

close up of a cow

Photo: David Wild (Flickr)

Cows produce a lot of methane, which is harming the environment.

Intestinal gas is produced by microbes that live in the gut. Most people are concerned about their own gas, but it’s a livestock gas known as methane that has scientists concerned.

Stinky Cows

Cows, goats, and sheep require symbiotic microbes to help digest the plant biomass that they eat, and some of these microbes make the methane.

Globally, livestock are one of the largest sources of methane production, and the third largest source of this greenhouse gas in the United States. Trying to curb methane emissions has become a topic of interest. And that interest has led to Australian wallabies.

80% Less Methane Per Unit

Wallabies are marsupial mammals like kangaroos and eat diets high in vegetation. Like cows, they have multiple compartments in their digestive tracts, including one that metabolizes plant matter to break it down. To digest that food, the compartment needs microbes.

The surprising thing is, Darma wallabies release about eighty percent less methane per unit of digestible food than livestock. So what’s going on? Intrigued by wallabies’ unique digestion, scientists used genetic testing to find out what kinds of bacteria were living in wallabies’ guts.

Fermentation

Out of about five hundred species identified, they found a bacterial species related to Succinivibrio that they call WG 1. Instead of making methane during fermentation, these bacteria make succinate, a chemical that gives wine and beer a salty and bitter flavor.

Now that they’ve identified the wallaby bacteria, scientists hope to find related species of bacteria in other livestock. If they can encourage the succinate bacteria to grow in larger numbers, they may be able to decrease the amount of methane the animals produce. Livestock will still have gas, but less of it.

Unfortunately, the bacteria probably won’t help the occasional human emission.

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