Methanogenic degradation of organic matter occurs in a wide temperature range from psychrophilic to extreme thermophilic conditions. Mesophilic and thermophilic methanogenesis is relatively well investigated, but little is known about low temperature methanogenesis and psychrophilic methanogenic communities. The aim of the present work was to study methanogenesis in a wide range of temperatures with samples from sediments of deep lakes. These sediments may be considered deposits of different types of microorganisms, which are constantly exposed to low temperatures. The main question was how psychrophilic methanogenic microbial communities compare to mesophilic and thermophilic ones.

Methanogenesis in a temperature range of 2–70°C was investigated using sediment samples from Baldegger lake (65 m) and Soppen lake (25 m), Switzerland. Methane production from organic matter of sediments occurred at all temperatures tested. An exponential dependence of methane production rate was found between 2 and 30°C. Methanogenesis occurred even at 70°C. At the same time stable methane production from organic matter of sediments was observed at temperatures below 10°C. Methanogenic microbial communities were enriched at different temperatures. The communities enriched at 4–8°C had the highest activity at low temperatures indicating that a specific psychrophilic community exists. Addition of substrates such as cellulose, volatile fatty acids (butyrate, propionate, acetate), methanol and H2/CO2 stimulated methane production at all temperatures. H2/CO2 as well as methanol were directly converted to methane under thermophilic conditions. At low temperatures these substrates were converted to methane by a two-step process. First acetate was formed, followed by methane production from acetate. When acetate concentrations were high, acetoclastic methanogenesis was inhibited at low temperatures. This reaction appears to be one of the “bottle neck” in psychrophilic methanogenesis.

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