When methylotrophic methanogens run their metabolism, they typically dismutate the methyl group - they process some of the CH3 groups to CO2 (oxidation) and some to CH4 (reduction). But the genomic reconstruction and physiological examination of two newly discovered organisms from hypersaline lakes in Siberia suggest that something different is happening: only the reductive branch is operational. And yet, the microbes still possess the genes for the oxidative pathway - they just don't seem to be active. The study has interesting implications for the evolution of methane metabolism, exposing a lineage of organisms that may be phasing methanogenesis out of its metabolic repertoire. The authors propose a new methanogenic class, the "Methanonatronarchaeia". Full text here, abstract below:
Methanogenic archaea are major players in the global carbon cycle and in the biotechnology of anaerobic digestion. The phylum Euryarchaeota includes diverse groups of methanogens that are interspersed with non-methanogenic lineages. So far, methanogens inhabiting hypersaline environments have been identified only within the order Methanosarcinales. We report the discovery of a deep phylogenetic lineage of extremophilic methanogens in hypersaline lakes and present analysis of two nearly complete genomes from this group. Within the phylum Euryarchaeota, these isolates form a separate, class-level lineage ‘Methanonatronarchaeia’ that is most closely related to the class Halobacteria. Similar to the Halobacteria, ‘Methanonatronarchaeia’ are extremely halophilic and do not accumulate organic osmoprotectants. The high intracellular concentration of potassium implies that ‘Methanonatronarchaeia’ employ the ‘salt-in’ osmoprotection strategy. These methanogens are heterotrophic methyl-reducers that use C1-methylated compounds as electron acceptors and formate or hydrogen as electron donors. The genomes contain an incomplete and apparently inactivated set of genes encoding the upper branch of methyl group oxidation to CO2 as well as membrane-bound heterodisulfide reductase and cytochromes. These features differentiate ‘Methanonatronarchaeia’ from all known methyl-reducing methanogens. The discovery of extremely halophilic, methyl-reducing methanogens related to haloarchaea provides insights into the origin of methanogenesis and shows that the strategies employed by methanogens to thrive in salt-saturating conditions are not limited to the classical methylotrophic pathway.