Anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) is the main process responsible for the removal of methane generated in Earth’s marine subsurface environments. However, the biochemical mechanism of AOM remains elusive. By explicitly resolving the observed spatial arrangement of methanotrophic archaea and sulfate reducing bacteria found in consortia mediating AOM, potential intermediates involved in the electron transfer between the methane oxidizing and sulfate reducing partners were investigated via a consortium-scale reaction transport model that integrates the effect of diffusional transport with thermodynamic and kinetic controls on microbial activity. Model simulations were used to assess the impact of poorly constrained microbial characteristics such as minimum energy requirements to sustain metabolism and cell specific rates. The role of environmental conditions such as the influence of methane levels on the feasibility of H2, formate and acetate as intermediate species, and the impact of the abundance of intermediate species on pathway reversal were examined. The results show that higher production rates of intermediates via AOM lead to increased diffusive fluxes from the methane oxidizing archaea to sulfate reducing bacteria, but the build-up of the exchangeable species can cause the energy yield of AOM to drop below that required for ATP production. Comparison to data from laboratory experiments shows that under the experimental conditions of Nauhaus et al. (2007), none of the potential intermediates considered here is able to support metabolic activity matching the measured rates.
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