Bacteria May Offer a Climate Change Solution

What is the dominant and most abundant life-form on Earth? Surprisingly, it is not humans, cows, trees, grass, or insects. By a very wide margin, bacteria dominate our planet.

The biomass of bacteria exceeds all of Earth’s plants and animals combined. The bacterial population is estimated to be about 5 million-trillion-trillion. Bacteria, by themselves, fulfill the prophet’s words in Isaiah 45:18, that God created Earth to be inhabited. These tiny life-forms cover every inch of Earth’s continents, oceans, soils, and even some of the deep parts of Earth’s crust.

Many species of bacteria are able to live under extremely harsh conditions; for example, in acidic hot springs, freezing saltwater, or even in radioactive wastes.

Most bacteria thrive in an oxygen-rich environment, but some can grow only where oxygen is not present at all. One of the most common of these anaerobic bacteria is Moorella thermoaceticum, ubiquitously found at the bottom of stagnant ponds. It normally consumes sugar and excretes acetic acid. However, when sugar is not present, M. thermoaceticum will metabolize carbon dioxide and methane into acetic acid.

Could Bacteria Help Solve Global Warming?

A team of seven chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) noted that the metabolic pathway (carbon dioxide + methane → acetic acid) could remove from the environment two of the most potent greenhouse gases that are released by industrial activity.1 (Of the total list of human activities that have been determined to contribute to global warming, the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere adds up to about half.) However, acetic acid is not a very convenient or economic byproduct. The MIT team wondered if the acetic acid produced by M. thermoaceticum could be converted into a more economically valuable product.

After much research and lab experimentation, the team found a way to reengineer the yeast species of bacteria, Yarrowia lipolytica, so that it can metabolize acetic acid into an oil product that can then be easily transformed into diesel fuel. The MIT team is confident that with further enhancements to boost efficiency, what they discovered could be scaled up so that vats of M. thermoaceticum and Y. lipolytica could be built into coal- and gas-fired electrical power plants and into steel mills and other energy-intensive factories to convert the greenhouse gases released by such plants and factories into saleable diesel fuel.

If the initiative proposed by the researchers were to be adopted by the nations of the world, the climate stability that we humans have enjoyed for the past 9,000 years2 and that has made our global high-technology civilization possible may be sustained for a longer time period than would otherwise be the case. Furthermore, it could be sustained through an economic benefit rather than an economic penalty.

M. thermoaceticum and Y. lipolytica, nearly invisible creatures with scientific names, provide yet another example of how God, in advance, has provided all the resources we need to address ecological problems in a manner that is both optimally ethical and economic. It just takes creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, and especially faith in God’s providence on our part to both discover and properly implement God’s creation. For more examples of such provisions by God, see my book, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job. Aren’t you glad God created such a diversity of bacteria and yeast? I encourage you to find some time today to thank God for creating M. thermoaceticum and Y. lipolytica.

Food for Thought

Do you think God has provided all the resources we need to deal with global warming?

Endnotes

  1. Peng Hu et al., “Integrated Bioprocess for Conversion of Gaseous Substrates to Liquids,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published electronically, March 7, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516867113.
  2. Hugh Ross, “Unique Ice Age Cycle Is Ideal for Humanity,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, January 15, 2015, http://www.reasons.org/articles/unique-ice-age-cycle-is-ideal-for-humanity.

4 thoughts on “Bacteria May Offer a Climate Change Solution

  1. As far as global warming itself is concerned, the jury is still very much out on how much man has contributed to it. Unfortunately the subject has become extraordinarily politicized, unscientific, and money-driven. What I probably object to most is the utter failure of any of the AGW proponents’ predictions to come true, whether that be in their forecasts of temperature, sea level rise, and so on. I say: first lets figure out what really drives earth’s climate (solar cycles are the most likely candidate), then figure out what to do about it.

  2. Yes, absolutely, God has given humanity the tools necessary to address global warming. To me, being “pro life” also includes taking the necessary steps to keep Earth optimally habitable for billions of people. Every human being is a blessing. So, as Christians, we should be in favor of technologies and policies that enable a growing global population to live in dignity.

    While fossil fuels have been a great blessing to humanity, by enabling rapid industrialization and technology development, they are best thought of as a “bridge” to better long-term solutions (should Jesus tarry). Renewable energy is becoming more cost effective every year, and even competitive with fossil fuels in many cases. Battery technology is getting good enough for short term buffering/storage of renewable energy, while enabling a nascent shift to electric vehicles (which also happen to be more pleasant to drive). Even apart from global warming, these technologies are good for air quality.

    As for methane emissions, switching away from beef is a great idea. Other meats are generally healthier, use less resources, and cause fewer emissions. While eating that occasional steak on a special occasion might be fine, regular, day-to-day beef consumption just isn’t necessary.

  3. I have so much from Dr. Ross over the years and am now persuaded that the earth is most likely “old” (billions of years old) as opposed to “young” (thousands of years). However, I am very surprised by his position on global warming/climate change. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but it seems he believes in climate change. I have always thought it is a hoax and a way for the liberal elites in the world to control society. Am I wrong? Thank you so much for all you do.

    1. @Bob Sherfy: It’ll be interesting to see how Dr. Ross responds. Personally, largely because of my political perspective, I was until ~10 years ago skeptical that human beings play a significant role in climate change. However, at its core, the question of whether we are significantly affecting the climate is truly scientific in nature, irrespective of what the various politicians may say. So, as thoughtful people, I think we owe it to ourselves to look carefully at the science.

      As for the politics, while liberal politicians eager to expand the role of government are happy to trumpet climate “solutions” that do just that, many conservative politicians have been more than happy to do the bidding of fossil fuel companies that contribute heavily to their campaigns. So I see issues on both sides of the aisle. I’d personally like to see market-based approaches to addressing climate change that do not substantially grow the government and that lead to long-term economic growth.

      Finally, articles like this are encouraging because they reinforce the truth that God has given us many different, possible tools to take care of the wonderful home (in this life) that He entrusted us with.

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