Top 10 Reasons I Love Crystal Meth(ane)

How to celebrate (lament!) the end of Breaking Bad? That’s right, a tribute post with the top 10 reasons I love Crysal Meth(ane).

Yo Bitch, let’s talk about cold seeps!

10. Blue Ice

You don’t need to track down Walter and Jesse to get your hands on some sweet blue ice. You can find Crystal Meth(ane) at the bottom of the ocean: high pressure and cold temperatures lead to the formation of gas deposits known as Methane Hydrates, where “molecules of natural gas are trapped in an ice-like case of water molecules”. These deposits look a little something like this:

Image courtesy NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Instead of scattered chunks you can also find HUGE blocks of Crystal Meth(ane). This is the largest one ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, measuring in at a whopping 6 metres wide x 2 metres high x 1.5 meters deep!

Photo from DOE/NETL Methane Hydrates Project

9. Crack dens

I’m talking about the fissures in the seafloor – cold seeps are literal crack dens. Where do you think all that Meth(ane) comes from? It slowly seeps out of the seafloor!

Cold seeps occur over fissures on the seafloor caused by tectonic activity. Oil and methane “seep” out of those fissures, get diffused by sediment, and emerge over an area several hundred meters wide. Methane is the main component of what we commonly refer to as natural gas. But in addition to being an important energy source for humans, methane also forms the basis of a cold seep ecosystem. (NOAA Ocean Explorer)

This crab is a total junkie, so don’t mess with him – and definitely don’t laugh when he gets Meth(ane) all over his face!

 8. The symbiosis cartel

No one is running Lamellibrachia out of town. This chemosynthetic genus of tube worms dominates the habitat surrounding deep-sea Crystal Meth(ane). And this worm cartel has called the shots for a loooong time –  Lamellibrachia worms can grow up to 3 metres (10ft) tall, and live for 250 years!!

[Lamellibrachia] is entirely reliant on internal, sulfide-oxidizing bacterial symbionts for its nutrition. L. luymesi provides the bacteria with hydrogen sulfide and oxygen by taking them up from the environment and binding them to a specialized hemoglobin molecule. Unlike the tube worms that live at hydrothermal vents, Lamellibrachia uses a posterior extension of its body called the root to take up hydrogen sulfide from the seep sediments. Lamellibrachia may also help fuel the generation of sulfide by excreting sulfate through their roots into the sediments below the aggregations. (Wikipedia).

(Image from Wikipedia)

7. Magnets

Deepwater methane seeps are magnets for research – they definitely bring the dolla$. A quick search on the National Science Foundation website shows a total of 201 projects, and 34 currently active research grants focused on “seeps”. And its no wonder, because Crystal Meth(ane) is associated with a whole lotta different, specific habitats: oil/gas seeps, methane seeps, gas hydrate seeps, brine seeps, brine pools, pockmarks and mud volcanoes. There’s a lot to study!

6. Hesiocaeca methanicola is the one who knocks


That’s right bitches, I’m talking about Meth(ane) ice worms. Hesiocaeca methanicola polychaete worms. That live on Crystal Meth(ane) and feed on specialized bacteria that live on the methane hydrate. I’ll bet you $20,000 that this is the most badass thing you’ve learned all day.

Studies suggest that these methane ice worms eat chemoautotrophic bacteria that are living off of chemicals in the methane hydrate. (Photo from NOAA Ocean Explorer on Flickr)

5. Beggiatoa, Bitch!

Beggiatoa is a genus of filamentous bacteria that form colorful, fuzzy mats around cold seeps. Mats can be white, yellow, or orange, and the mat colors usually correspond to environmental conditions (such as temperature gradients). The colors also correspond to different species of Beggiatoa bacteria – these species are constantly competing with each other, vying for space on the seafloor and access to nutrients.

Beggiatoa mats on the sea floor around a Gulf of Mexico cold seep. The image mosaic (from left to right, and top to bottom) shows increasing magnification of the individual filaments, which are clearly visible in the 2-cm scale bar panel. (image caption and image from the NOAA Ocean Explorer website; original image courtesy of Ian McDonald and Mandy Joye)
4. Um…AOM!

AOM = Anaerobic oxidation of methane. This is a totally important microbial process that prevents all the Crystal Meth(ane) on the seafloor from rising up and being released into the atmosphere. But the process has stumped scientists for years! Even now we don’t have a complete understanding of the microbes involved, but in recent years we’ve made some significant progress (especially with genomic tools). Here’s a quick overview of this complicated topic:

Vast amounts of methane are stored under the ocean floor. Anaerobic oxidation of methane coupled to sulfate respiration (AOM) prevents the release of this potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Although the process was discovered 35 years ago it has remained a long standing mystery as to how microorganisms perform this reaction. A decade ago, an important discovery was made which showed that two different microorganisms are often associated with AOM. It was proposed that these two microorganisms perform different parts of the AOM reaction. One, an archaeon, was supposed to oxidize methane and the other, a bacterium, was supposed to respire sulfate. This implied the existence of an intermediate compound to be shuttled from the methane oxidizer to the sulfate respirer. [But recent research has] turned this whole model on its head…the archaeon not only oxidizes methane but can also respire sulfate and does not necessarily need the bacterial partner. It appears that the archaeon does not employ the common enzyme toolbox that other known sulfate-respiring microorganisms use, but relies on a different, unknown pathway. (New article from the Max-Planck Institute)

3. Burn baby, burn!

OK, so there are a lot of explosions in Breaking Bad, but not so many in the deep-sea. However, another reason that Crystal Meth(ane) is awesome is because it BURNS. So #3 is just an excuse for me to put in some pictures of fire:

Methane gas burns as it is released from the lattice of water (image from Wikipedia)

2. Time for a drink?

Marine Biology and Breaking Bad episodes usually involve a fair amount of drinking. Writing this Top 10 list has surprisingly involved no alcohol so far. But since I’m getting thirsty, I just wanted to remind everyone that Crystal Meth(ane) may have a connection to your drinking water. You might have heard of Methane Hydrates in the context of Fracking, a controversial mining technique often used to extract natural gas. Methane, is of course the main component of natural gas, and methane hydrates occur not only in the oceans but deep within terrestrial rocks and even in Arctic permafrost.

1. Its all about the chemistry

The chemistry of cold seeps is #1 because it would make Walter White proud. Cold seeps are all about chemistry – different compounds abound, organismal metabolisms adhere to a variety of pathways. Crystal Meth(ane) is defined by its chemical formula (CH4•5.75H2O), and AOM can be best described in equation terms: CH4 + SO42- → HCO3- + HS + H2O. Methane hydrates simultaneously represent one of the largest untapped fossil fuel sources on earth, and a potentially significant player in climate change. Understanding the chemistry of deepwater ecosystems will be vital knowledge in the decades to come.

5 Replies to “Top 10 Reasons I Love Crystal Meth(ane)”

  1. This is the best presentation of this critical energy and pharma source that normally leaves people glazed with boredom. i wrote about methane hydrates when everyone called “junk science.” Please add me to your listserv. Brilliant how you use humor to educate. (fyi, the world’s largest thermogenic mh is loctaed in the Blake Ridge offshore south carolina, which has a fragile, slide-prone OCS…meaning a wrong poke could send up a tsunami leaving the eastern seaboard awash…and lovely Charleston skidding toward Bermuda.)

  2. This “oh-so-hip” presentation of a very interesting phenomenon is regrettable. I stopped reading halway through it as I couldn’t take any more. Just present the science. Tarting it up for people to read is pointless. Such readers have no value. Too bad, I would have liked to learn the real scinece presented here.

  3. This “oh-so-hip” presentation of a very interesting phenomenon is regrettable. I stopped reading halfway through it as I couldn’t take any more. Just present the science. Tarting it up for people to read is pointless. Too bad, I would have liked to learn the real science presented here.

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