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How microbes survive and thrive in coal seams


A research team has studied the ability for some microbial communities to exist within coal-fired gas vents, turning lethal substances into energy.

Samples were taken from the Kuznetsk coal basin in Russia – one of the largest in the world – from places where intense heat in the ground and clouds of steam with smoke were apparent.

Coal mining has occurred in the Kuznetsk coal basin for hundreds of years, with numerous old deposits left to spontaneously ignite occasionally.

Coal seams burning underground can be found around the world in Australia, Germany, USA, China, Russia, India and other countries, according to the article published by the researchers.

One example of a natural underground coal fire is called Burning Mountain, or Mount Wingen in New South Wales, which has been burning for about 6000 years.

The heat rising from these underground fires can range from 50°C to 800°C.

Vitaly Kadnikov of the Federal Research Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences told Mirage News that only the most well-adapted of microbes are able to thrive in such intense environments.

“Exclusively very adapted micro-organisms can exist here,” Kadnikov said. “They do not only have unique protective systems but are also able to get energy from chemical transformations of those substances that are available to them.”

The findings upon analysing several samples taken from the surface and 5cm to 10cm below surface found the geothermic ecosystems consisted mainly of one kind of bacteria, despite a vast majority of life failing to thrive in such severe conditions.

“Microbial communities were dominated by members of the class Ktedonobacteria, known to be capable of oxidising hydrogen and carbon monoxide,” the research paper stated.

“Another abundant lineage, Candidatus Udaeobacter, can generate energy through the oxidation of hydrogen.”

The article summarised that once a combination of coal gases, hydrogen and carbon monoxide had been exposed to the oxygen on the surface, this provided energy for certain organisms to occur.

Kadnikov theorised that discoveries like this can always lead to something more useful for human technology.

“Our research is another step towards understanding how these relatively young ecosystems emerged, what connections they have and whether we can use them,” Kadnikov told Mirage.

“Who knows, maybe they comprise very specific organisms that will help to develop new ways of obtaining valuable biotechnological products by using hydrogen and carbon monoxide generated during coal gasification.”

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