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This volcanic microbe could be the next frontier in carbon capture tech

Scientists have recently discovered an organism in hot springs that eats CO2 ‘astonishingly quickly.’ They hope to utilise it as an efficient means of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

When it comes to the most efficient ecosystems for carbon capture, mangroves, the Amazon rainforest, and peat swamps are what tends to spring to mind.

Scientists, however, have recently discovered a volcanic microbe that could unlock a new frontier in this kind of technology.

Known as a cyanobacterium, the organism was found in a hot spring near the Italian island of Vulcano, where the water contains high levels of CO2 and the extreme high-pressure, high-temperature, and nutrient-limited environment allows it to thrive.

‘These bacteria appear to grow naturally in these volcanic plumes, efficiently using the plentiful CO2; when measured against some of the fastest-growing cyanobacteria described, the strain was more efficient at carbon capture under several conditions,’ says Max Schubert, Ph.D., who worked on the project.

‘They also seem to have adapted to the bubbling, churning environment of the volcanic plumes by becoming denser and sinking more readily –– an unusual trait that could prove useful for potentially capturing carbon and sinking it into the deep ocean for sequestration.’

According to the researchers, the never-before-seen green photosynthetic bug successfully managed to turn carbon dioxide into biomass faster than any other identified cyanobacteria.

As a result, they hope to utilise its voracious appetite to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Doing so is critical in ending the climate crisis because, as much as we need to stop burning fossil fuels, sucking CO2 from the air is just as important if we’re to limit future damage.

‘Our lead collaborator at Harvard isolated this organism that grew astonishingly quickly, compared to other cyanobacteria,’ says Dr Braden Tierney of Harvard Medical School.

‘The project takes advantage of 3.6bn years of microbial evolution. The nice thing about microbes is that they are self-assembling machines. You don’t have that with a lot of the chemical approaches to CO2 capture.’

Changing CO2 Levels Require Microbial Coping Strategies

As Tierney explains, this microbe in particular has another unusual property: it sinks in water, which could help collect the CO2 it absorbs.

Despite the promise it shows in making transformative strides in human and planetary health, however, he stresses that the microbe is not a silver bullet.

‘There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change and carbon capture,’ he says.

‘There will be circumstances where the tree is going to outperform microbes or fungi. But there will also be circumstances where you really want a fast-growing aquatic microbe that sinks.’

Regardless, the ground-breaking discovery has the potential to power the ‘bio-revolution’ in carbon capture technology and uncover novel solutions to tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing our Earth, from carbon remediation to resource management to ecological preservation.