Science & Research
Counteracts global warming through methane depletion: Crenothrix polyspora

Drinking Water Bacterium Feeds on Greenhouse Gas

The bacterium Crenothrix polyspora, which is still infamous for its presence in drinking water facilities, incorporates the greenhouse gas methane by using a highly unusual protein.

This evidence has recently been established by a team of researchers from Vienna University, chaired by Michael Wagner and Holger Daims, in collaboration with scientists from Aalborg University and Technische Universität Hamburg- Harburg.

Ferdinand Cohn, renowned as the founder of modern bacteriology, was the first to discover Crenothrix polyspora. In 1870 he detected the bacterium in drinking water wells and gave it the name “Brunnenfaden” (well filament), hinting at its filamentous shape. When occurring in large numbers, these filaments tend to form lumps and may consequently clog up the piping network.

The bacterium manifests itself by giving water a red colour. Therefore, serious repeated efforts have gone into eliminating it from drinking water systems in the past. In some cases, such as in Berlin and Rotterdam, the bacteria were even traced as far back as the household taps.

Any previous attempts to cultivate the bacterium in the lab to find out with what other bacteria it is associated, what materials it feeds on and why it tends to occur in large numbers have failed. Molecular biologists have now managed to unveil these secrets by means of genetic probes.

The bacterium in fact derives the energy on which it thrives and the carbon essential for its cellular substance from methane! “This ability it shares with only few other hitherto investigated micro-organisms,” explains Michael Wagner. For this purpose, Crenothrix polyspora possesses a special, previously unrecognised protein which in this specific form does not occur in any other living organism.

This creates entirely new insights into the evolutionary and biochemical history of methane-oxydising bacteria. “We need to understand a lot more about these bacteria. As they incorporate the greenhouse gas methane, they also help reduce the latter’s concentration in the atmosphere, and this vitally counteracts global warming,” says Wagner.

The results of this study were included in the online edition of the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America”/PNAS – Early Edition ( and have been available for download since the start of February. Later they will also be published in a printed version of PNAS.
(Source: aqua press Int. 1/2006)

Contact & Information:

Department für Mikrobielle Ökologie der Fakultät
für Lebenswissenschaften an der Universität Wien
o. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Michael Wagner
Althanstr. 14, A-1090 Wien
Tel.: +43/1/4277-54 390

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