Where Science and Faith Converge

Bacteria May Offer a Climate Change Solution

By Hugh Ross - April 4, 2016

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?

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 by-product. 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 salable 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 years and that has made our global high-technology civilization possible may be sustained for a longer time period than would otherwise be the case.2 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? Visit TNRTB on Wordpress to comment with your response.

  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, https://www.reasons.org/articles/unique-ice-age-cycle-is-ideal-for-humanity.

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