• Dr Sally Price in her lab with methane samples and microbe slides for examination. Photo credit: Lincoln UniversityDr Sally Price in her lab with methane samples and microbe slides for examination. Photo credit: Lincoln University

Lincoln University scientist thinks small to solve a big problem

Dr Sally Price a senior researcher at Lincoln University’s Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been undertaking periodic research for the last 15 years into soil microbes that are able to consume methane.

Methane is expelled by cows and other ruminant livestock through flatulence and is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.  Dr Price has found that the root systems of trees and shrubs help to break up the surface of the soil, allowing the gases to travel down to the microbes. 

Dr Price is currently looking to raise funds to develop a set of guidelines for farmers that will encourage the growth of the microbes, know as methanotrophs.  Minimising compaction of the soil and incorporating organic residues can also make a difference to the microbial communities and increase methane consumption.

"The good news is that most soils can act as 'sinks' for methane but the ability to do this ranges from 5 to 15 percent of their potential in dairy, ungrazed pasture, sheep pasture, and cropping soils, to between 30 to 50 percent in shrubland and pine forest." Dr Price said.

Many factors influence the effectiveness of soil methane bacteria, soil water content, aeration and disturbance for example, all of these factors are also vital to the maintenance of soil health, so if farmers follow the guidelines to encourage microbe growth and methane consumption, it would also lead to better soil. 

Farmers today have to know a lot about science in their role but now also need to take on board what was happening on the microscopic scale as well.  Dr Price added: "They (the microbes) are actually driving the farm."

Lincoln University near Christchurch is a specialist land-based University, which offers a wide range of degrees in agriculture, life sciences, and many more subject areas, contact Study Options if you would like to find out more about the programmes available at Lincoln University.

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