Bacteria could detect leaks at carbon capture sites

Statoil har deponert CO2 under havbunnen på Sleipner-feltet siden 1996.
The Norwegian oil company Statoil has been storing CO2 in a depleted reservoir beneath the North Sea for many years. Bacteria kan help in controlling for leaks, an internal team of scientists suggests. Illustration: Alligator film - Statoil ASA

Bacteria could detect leaks at carbon capture sites

Bacteria and archaea could be used to monitor stored carbon dioxide (CO2) and convert it into useful products, such as ethanol and acetate, say researchers at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and the University of Oslo.

 In an Opinion published October 3, in Trends in Biotechnology, they discuss how new bioinformatics tools would enable researchers to read shifts in microbial community genetics—making it possible to, for example, detect potential CO2 leaks—and how such analyses could contribute to making large-scale capture and storage of CO2 feasible.

Unni Vik og Kjetill Jakobsen foreslår at mikroorganismer kan hjelpe med å redde klimaet
Unni Vik and Kjetill S. Jakobsen at the University of Oslo were part of the international team of researchers behind the new idea. Photo: Bjarne Røsjø Download picture.

Rising CO2 levels contribute to both global warming and ocean acidification. Capturing this CO2 from large point sources and storing it in underground geological formations, a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS), is considered one promising way to keep it out of the atmosphere and reduce its effects. The CO2 is buried in porous and permeable rock that is blanketed with at least one layer of impermeable rock.

Comes with risks

But this potential solution comes with risks, says Natalie Hicks (@DrNatalieHicks), a biogeochemist at SAMS, “one of the biggest concerns with carbon capture storage is the environmental impacts if there is a leak, …how would we know about it, how would we detect it, and what would the environmental implications be.”

Hicks and her co-authors, who include Kjetill S. Jakobsen and Unni Vik from the University of Oslo in a multidisciplinary team of geneticists and engineers, say that in addition to physical methods of monitoring CCS sites, such as measuring CO2 levels, which currently lack clear protocols and can be difficult at remote sites, it should be possible to monitor the bacteria and archaea living in sediment overlying these sites to detect potential leaks. They point to a simulated CO2 leak experiment previously conducted in a sub-seabed reservoir off the west coast of Scotland that detected changes in the microbial communities around the reservoir, before other organisms were visibly affected.

The researchers note that this approach will require more information on microbial communities and how they respond to fluctuations in CO2. It will also depend on the development of tools to sequence and analyze the genomic and metagenomics data in microbial communities, relate it to environmental conditions, and allow for the detection of small-scale changes in microbial response, such as a CO2 leak. 

A trade-off between risks and necessity

While there is a lot of work to be done to turn this microbial monitoring and utilization of CO2 storage sites into a reality, the researchers believe it will be worth it. As Kjetill S. Jakobsen (@kjetillj) of the University of Oslo says, “There is a trade-off between risks and the necessity to control and to mediate CO2 and if you really have a huge problem like ocean acidification, you might have to use these techniques to get rid of it.”

Funding was provided by the COVERALL project, the Research Council of Norway, and the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Author Contact:

Natalie Hicks:, +44 (0) 1631 559 440 (office)

Kjetill S Jakobsen,, +47-22854602 (office)/+47-90741779

Unni Vik:, +47-22854588

Read more:

Trends in Biotechnology, Hicks et al.: “Using prokaryotes for Carbon Capture Storage

Trends in Biotechnology (@TrendsinBiotech), published by Cell Press, is a monthly review journal of applied biosciences. It addresses what is new, significant, and practicable in the integrated use of many biological technologies--from molecular genetics to biochemical engineering. Visit: To receive Cell Press media alerts, please contact


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