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Summary

Biologically produced methane (CH4) from anaerobic digesters is a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, but digester failure can be a serious problem. Monitoring the microbial community within the digester could provide valuable information about process stability because this technology is dependent upon the metabolic processes of microorganisms. A healthy methanogenic community is critical for digester function and CH4 production. Methanogens can be surveyed and monitored using genes and transcripts of mcrA, which encodes the α subunit of methyl coenzyme M reductase – the enzyme that catalyses the final step in methanogenesis. Using clone libraries and quantitative polymerase chain reaction, we compared the diversity and abundance of mcrA genes and transcripts in four different methanogenic hydrogen/CO2 enrichment cultures to function, as measured by specific methanogenic activity (SMA) assays using H2/CO2. The mcrA gene copy number significantly correlated with CH4 production rates using H2/CO2, while correlations between mcrA transcript number and SMA were not significant. The DNA and cDNA clone libraries from all enrichments were distinctive but community diversity also did not correlate with SMA. Although hydrogenotrophic methanogens dominated these enrichments, the results indicate that this methodology should be applicable to monitoring other methanogenic communities in anaerobic digesters. Ultimately, this could lead to the engineering of digester microbial communities to produce more CH4 for use as renewable fuel.