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K-State Today Student Edition

September 10, 2018

Newly funded NSF project seeks to advance our understanding of methane generation

By Matthew Kirk

Kansas State University researchers in geology and biology are part of a newly funded National Science Foundation project to research the functions of microorganisms and their role in the production of methane in nature.

Microorganisms are tiny organisms. These days we hear a lot about their impact on our health. The microorganisms that inhabit your gut, for example, help you extract nutrients from your food and defend your body against pathogens. Microorganisms also play big roles in geological environments, where among other things, their reactions can cause minerals to precipitate or dissolve, mobilize hazardous trace elements, metabolize hydrocarbons, and drive cycling of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, iron, and most other elements in global cycles.

The study, led by Matthew Kirk, associate professor of geology, and Lydia Zeglin, assistant professor of biology, and their collaborator, Qusheng Jin, associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Oregon, is focusing on two microbial reactions in particular: iron reduction and methanogenesis.

Biogenic methane is of interest to science and society because it is an important energy source as well as a potent greenhouse gas. The results of this study can be used to better predict methane generation and manage carbon budgets in systems such as anoxic soils, aquifers, wastewater treatment wetlands, landfills and anaerobic digesters.

In addition, the study also will provide interdisciplinary training to undergraduate and graduate students and increase the involvement of underrepresented groups in science through participation in the Kansas Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation summer research program and summer outreach events for middle school girls. Project personnel also will engage community college students, faculty and staff each spring on recruiting trips that aim to increase awareness of geoscience and geoscience careers among potential transfer students at minority-serving institutions.

To achieve its research goals, the study will use experiments and modeling calculations to create a new model for methanogenesis — one that links competitive and cooperative interactions. The model will improve the ability to predict methane generation and manage carbon budgets in natural and engineered systems including soils, aquifers, landfills, and wastewater treatment systems.

The Division of Biology and geology department are both housed in K-State's College of Arts and Sciences. The NSF awarded $310,748 for the entire project and K-State will receive $196,330 of it.

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