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New research grant to understand the role of trees in methane emission

Sunitha Pangala in wetladn environment

An OU researcher has been awarded over £500,000 to research the role of trees in the methane cycle.

Dr Sunitha Pangala, Post Doctoral Research Associate in the OU’s STEM faculty has been awarded the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship to investigate whether trees play a central role in methane emissions from forested wetlands.   

The OU, home to the largest active group conducting pioneering research on methane exchanges from wetlands and to the most advanced laboratory facilities for measurement, will host the five-year project and collaborate with Lancaster University, UK;  Linköping University, Sweden and Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

According to Dr Pangala, wetlands are the largest natural source of methane and forested wetlands and trees offer an additional route for soil methane to escape to the atmosphere. Although, wetland methane production and emission have been studied for over 30 years, tree methane emissions have been completely overlooked resulting in a lack of information on the quantity and processes of these emissions.

Therefore, in this study, the researchers will use 1) tracer techniques to understand methane production and movement in trees by injecting labelled methane and labelled substrates on which methane producing microorganisms feed, 2) controlled tree sapling laboratory experiments to understand the role of trees in methane cycling and 3) the ratio of two naturally occurring carbon isotopes to study how methane is produced, consumed and altered as it moves through the tree.

This will be the first multi-year study to establish a fundamental understanding of methane emissions from trees and so will inform other research communities which could help in in assessing mitigation efforts to address future climate change models.

Dr Pangala said:

“Our work so far has not only revealed the importance of tree methane emissions globally but also highlighted our limited knowledge of the mechanisms driving these emissions. I hypothesise that wetland trees act as methane bioreactors, i.e., trees stimulate and accelerate both the production of methane within their root zones and escape of methane produced in the root zone to the atmosphere through their stem surfaces.

Therefore, in these forested wetlands, trees play a more central role and soils on the other hand only play a subsidiary role.  Such a finding could transform our understanding of methane dynamics in forested wetlands.”

Read more about Dr Pangala's research

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