By Hannah Mason, Assistant Editor
On April 2, the research of WLU Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Evan Lau and his colleagues was published in a special issue of the peer-reviewed academic journal “Microorganisms,” an open-access journal by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) on Microbial C1 metabolism.
The article, titled “High Throughput Sequencing to Detect Differences in Methanotrophic Methylococcaceae and Methylocystaceae in Surface Peat, Forest Soil, and Sphagnum Moss in Cranesville Swamp Preserve, West Virginia, USA,” was authored by Dr. Lau, WLU Academic Laboratory Instructor Edward J. Nolan, WLU biology students Zachary Dillard and Wendi Wentzell, and former students Ryan Dague and Amanda Semple. The open access article can be found here.
The project was initiated by Lau in 2012 and is his third paper published on the topic. Lau’s interest in methanotrophic bacteria began with his postdoctoral research at Harvard University.
“In our research, we compared the diversity and abundance of certain types of methanotrophic bacteria—that is, bacteria that consume methane, the greenhouse gas—between three different habitats: forest soil, peat, and mosses,” Lau said.
“We looked at stuff above the water, stuff below the water, and stuff in the water,” WLU Academic Laboratory Instructor Edward J. Nolan said. The three sites were all close by each other, but, Nolan said, where microscopic organisms are concerned, “even though they’re in locations that are within walking distance apart, it’s a whole different world.” The couple of feet or even inches between a patch of forest soil and a moss plant can indicate an entirely different habitat for microorganisms.
What they discovered through their research was that over half of the methanotrophic bacterial species found in the mosses, tended to be the same as those found in the nearby peat (which is dead organic matter), but completely different from those found in the soil.
In addition, the study was unique in that it used multiplex gene sequencing. “They got almost a million new sequences,” Lau said, “and were able to generate a number of phylogenetic trees to map the genetic relationships between the bacteria.”
This project, according to Lau and Nolan, has two major impacts. The first is environmental. According to the article, this research provides insights into the community structure and biogeography of these methane-consuming bacteria in moss-dominated peatlands such as the Cranesville Swamp Preserve in West Virginia.
“There’s a big conservation push right now to preserve wetlands and wetlands are a major source and sink of methane gas and are thus important environmentally in the global carbon cycle,” Nolan said.
“The bacteria that we studied are the only life forms that can utilize and break down methane, a greenhouse gas,” Lau said. Nolan said that this type of work “is starting to shed light on how (wetlands) can consume methane gases.”
“Secondly, this type of study has never been done before,” Nolan said. “It’s the first to look at methanotrophs in both peat and soil, and it spans many scientific fields, combining molecular biology, ecology, and statistics, and involving both computer and field work.”
This research has opened doors into new potential fields of study. “Since we now have the groundwork for how this type of study can work,” Nolan said, “we can now use these methods to explore other environments.”
“I’ll be using similar methods to study pathogenic microbes in human and mouse lungs, as well as those involved in emissions of greenhouse gases in lake and sea water,” Lau said.
The project was funded by West Liberty University’s faculty development and West Virginia NASA grants. The dedicated faculty and students in WLU’s Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics are currently involved in a variety of research projects spanning many scientific disciplines. For more information, click here.