An Oak Ridge environmental microbiologist named Christopher Schadt approaches a cottonwood tree, and “sticks a hollow tube in the middle and then takes a lighter and flicks it.” The next thing that happened was mind-blowing. There was flame shooting out of the tube? How could this be possible?
This was achievable because of the methane trapped inside the cottonwood tree. The trapped methane phenomenon happens in certain cottonwood trees. The question is: How did the methane gas get to be inside the tree? Do these trees make the methane gas?
"The wood in this particular species naturally has this condition called wetwood, where it's saturated within the trunk of the tree," says the lighter-flicking scientist, Oak Ridge environmental microbiologist Christopher Schadt.
This wetwood makes for a welcoming home for all sorts of microorganisms.
"You can't actually see a lot of the organisms because we can't grow a lot of these organisms," says Melissa Cregger, a staff scientist at Oak Ridge. "So we're able to identify them using their gene sequences."
Some of those organisms turned out to be species of archaea that are known methane producers. So it's not the trees themselves that are making the methane, it's the microbes living in the trees.
(Image Credit: Dan Yip/ ORNL)