Large carbon isotope fractionation associated with oxidation of methyl halides by methylotrophic bacteria

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
By: , and 



The largest biological fractionations of stable carbon isotopes observed in nature occur during production of methane by methanogenic archaea. These fractionations result in substantial (as much as ≈70‰) shifts in δ13C relative to the initial substrate. We now report that a stable carbon isotopic fractionation of comparable magnitude (up to 70‰) occurs during oxidation of methyl halides by methylotrophic bacteria. We have demonstrated biological fractionation with whole cells of three methylotrophs (strain IMB-1, strain CC495, and strain MB2) and, to a lesser extent, with the purified cobalamin-dependent methyltransferase enzyme obtained from strain CC495. Thus, the genetic similarities recently reported between methylotrophs, and methanogens with respect to their pathways for C1-unit metabolism are also reflected in the carbon isotopic fractionations achieved by these organisms. We found that only part of the observed fractionation of carbon isotopes could be accounted for by the activity of the corrinoid methyltransferase enzyme, suggesting fractionation by enzymes further along the degradation pathway. These observations are of potential biogeochemical significance in the application of stable carbon isotope ratios to constrain the tropospheric budgets for the ozone-depleting halocarbons, methyl bromide and methyl chloride.

Methyl bromide (MeBr) and methyl chloride (MeCl) are, respectively, the most abundant volatile bromo- and chlorocarbons in the troposphere and are major contributors to stratospheric ozone destruction (1). Both compounds have natural and human-influenced sources and a predominant sink by reaction with OH in the troposphere (2–4). MeBr also has a bacterial soil sink (5) that represents about 20% of the estimated total removal from the troposphere, and it is likely that a soil sink of similar magnitude exists for MeCl (6). Hence, if an isotopic fractionation is associated with the soil sink, it will influence the isotopic compositions of MeBr and MeCl in the lower atmosphere (7). The δ 13C value of industrially produced MeBr ranges between −43.5‰ and −66.4‰ (7), but δ 13C values of tropospheric MeBr and natural sources are not yet known. The δ 13C of atmospheric MeCl has been measured from −22‰ to −45‰ (8, 9). If carbon isotope ratios are to be used to constrain the budgets of these methyl halides, it is essential to determine the extent of carbon isotope fractionation that occurs during biological degradation of these compounds.

Methylotrophic bacteria use C1 compounds, which are simple organic molecules that contain no carbon–carbon bonds. Strains IMB-1, CC495, and MB2 are as-yet-unnamed facultative methylotrophs isolated from agricultural soil, woodland leaf litter, and coastal seawater, respectively (10–13), environments where methyl halides are produced. They are members of the α subgroup of the Proteobacteria. On the basis of 16S rRNA gene sequences, strains IMB-1 and CC495 show some phylogenetic alignment with the genusRhizobium (10, 11) and are very closely related to the new genus Pseudoaminobacter (I. McDonald, personal communication). Strain MB2 aligns within the Ruegeria clade [J. K. Schaefer, K. D. Goodwin, I. R. McDonald, J. C. Murrell and R.S.O., unpublished work]. All of these aerobic bacteria are methylotrophs in that they can grow by using MeBr or MeCl as their sole carbon source, but they do not metabolize methane. They oxidize MeBr, MeCl, and methyl iodide (MeI) to CO2.

Soil bacteria are known to consume MeBr at the ambient tropospheric mixing ratio of around 10 parts per trillion by volume (5). Preliminary experiments with strain IMB-1 indicate that it can oxidize MeBr at these mixing ratios** and is therefore likely to be characteristic of bacteria associated with MeBr uptake by soils. We examined δ 13C of MeCl, MeBr, and MeI during oxidation by whole-cell suspensions of IMB-1 and CC495 and also the change in δ 13C values of the three methyl halides during oxidation by the marine strain MB2. In addition, we measured the fractionation of carbon isotopes during formation of methane thiol (MeSH) from MeCl by the purified cobalamin-dependent enzyme, halomethane:bisulphide/halide ion methyltransferase (11) from CC495, to determine whether this initial step in MeCl degradation could account for the observed fractionation by whole cells. Finally, we determined the fractionation associated with the degradation of MeBr during field studies with agricultural soil by monitoring MeBr concentration and δ 13C of MeBr in the headspace of flux chambers under fumigation conditions.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Large carbon isotope fractionation associated with oxidation of methyl halides by methylotrophic bacteria
Series title Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
DOI 10.1073/pnas.101129798
Volume 98
Issue 10
Year Published 2001
Language English
Publisher PNAS
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 5 p.
First page 5833
Last page 5837