Your research focuses on the role of methane in the environment, especially in lakes and oceans. What answers do you hope to find with your project?
Barbara Bayer: We don’t exactly know how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is emitted by aquatic ecosystems. I plan to investigate how it is produced and consumed. The so-called “methane paradox” can often be observed in lakes or oceans, where elevated methane concentrations are found in the upper, oxygen-rich layer of water. This is surprising, because for a long time, we believed that methane is only produced under anoxic conditions. We don’t know yet which microorganisms produce this methane and are responsible for the paradox. That’s something I’m going to take a close look at.
I also plan to explore which metabolic pathways microorganisms use to produce methane. There are also microorganisms that consume methane. They make up the so-called “microbial methane filter.” I want to find out which microorganisms do that.
We don’t exactly know just how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is emitted by aquatic ecosystems.
How do you plan to proceed?
Bayer: Among other things, by including another aspect: eutrophication, which results from an excess of nutrients in lakes and coastal zones. This poses a threat to many aquatic ecosystems, because we humans introduce too many nutrients into the water through fertilizer use. This leads to algal blooms and probably also affects the activities of microorganisms involved in methane cycling. I will be comparing different aquatic ecosystems, which are more or less affected by eutrophication, to test my hypothesis that over-fertilization could have a negative effect on methane consumption, leaving more methane behind. Additionally, if eutrophication also contributes to increased methane production in lakes and oceans, it would mean that more of this greenhouse gas is being released into the atmosphere, intensifying global warming.
What initial steps do you plan to take?
Bayer: I will establish my first independent research group to investigate these questions. We will be mainly conducting field research to take methane measurements in the environment, for example in the Austrian lakes Mondsee and Attersee. These lakes are particularly interesting for my research because Lake Attersee has much lower nutrient levels than Lake Mondsee, even though they are connected.
We also plan to take measurements in the Mediterranean Sea off the French coast, as well as in the Baltic Sea during a week-long research cruise with our cooperation partner at the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research.
Microbial methane production rates will be measured using different isotope approaches: Microorganisms take up a compound and metabolize it, releasing methane as a by-product. We provide so-called precursor compounds labelled with heavy isotopes, such as C-13. We want to find out if methane is released from these compounds and if so, how fast? We then measure in the laboratory how much methane (CH4), which is also a carbon compound, contains the heavy isotope. To find out which microorganisms produce methane, we use DNA and RNA sequencing methods.
I want to know how things really work.
What will the START Award mean for your research activities?
Bayer: The award allows me to take a further step towards independence by giving me the resources to become an independent group leader and hire three team members.
What motivates you in your day-to-day research?
Bayer: I want to know how things really work. Sometimes you conduct experiments based on preliminary studies and hypotheses and then arrive at completely unanticipated results. It’s particularly exciting when these then change our perspective on an entire field of research and we have to rethink everything we thought we knew.
Do you have role models?
Bayer: I do, for example Alyson Santoro from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I did my postdoc. She is a successful oceanographer and a great group leader. Despite having a lot of responsibilities as a professor, she always came out to sea and took samples herself. She is a role model for how I want to run my own research group. My current supervisor, Michael Wagner, supported me in taking another step towards independence when I applied for the START Award. I am very thankful for his advice on scientific and strategic aspects of research life. The third is my PhD supervisor Gerhard Herndl, who has demonstrated that you can successfully do marine research in Austria. His almost childlike curiosity and strong motivation has really rubbed off on me.
Barbara Bayer is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna, where she studied biology and ecology. In 2019, she received her PhD from the Department of Limnology and Bio-Oceanography at the University of Vienna and then worked for two years as a research fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
About the project
The project “Microbial Methane Cycling in Aquatic Ecosystems” quantifies methane production in surface waters and identifies which microorganisms are involved. One goal is to gain a mechanistic understanding of how eutrophication (over-fertilization) of aquatic ecosystems affects the processes of the natural microbial methane cycle.
The FWF START Award
The START program of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) is aimed at outstanding young researchers, giving them the opportunity to plan their research in the long term and with a high degree of financial security It is endowed with up to €1.2 million and is one of Austria’s most prestigious and most highly endowed awards alongside the FWF Wittgenstein Award.