A series of molecular and geochemical studies were performed to study microbial, coal bed methane formation in the eastern Illinois Basin. Results suggest that organic matter is biodegraded to simple molecules, such as H 2 and CO2, which fuel methanogenesis and the generation of large coal bed methane reserves. Small-subunit rRNA analysis of both the in situ microbial community and highly purified, methanogenic enrichments indicated that Methanocorpusculum is the dominant genus. Additionally, we characterized this methanogenic microorganism using scanning electron microscopy and distribution of intact polar cell membrane lipids. Phylogenetic studies of coal water samples helped us develop a model of methanogenic biodegradation of macromolecular coal and coal-derived oil by a complex microbial community. Based on enrichments, phylogenetic analyses, and calculated free energies at in situ subsurface conditions for relevant metabolisms (H2-utilizing methanogenesis, acetoclastic methanogenesis, and homoacetogenesis), H 2-utilizing methanogenesis appears to be the dominant terminal process of biodegradation of coal organic matter at this location. Copyright ?? 2008, American Society for Microbiology. All Rights Reserved.