Evolving understanding of rumen methanogen ecophysiology
Production of methane by methanogenic archaea, or methanogens, in the rumen of ruminants is a thermodynamic necessity for microbial conversion of feed to volatile fatty acids, which are essential nutrients for the animals. On the other hand, methane is a greenhouse gas and its production causes energy loss for the animal. Accordingly, there are ongoing efforts toward developing effective strategies for mitigating methane emissions from ruminant livestock that require a detailed understanding of the diversity and ecophysiology of rumen methanogens. Rumen methanogens evolved from free-living autotrophic ancestors through genome streamlining involving gene loss and acquisition. The process yielded an oligotrophic lifestyle, and metabolically efficient and ecologically adapted descendants. This specialization poses serious challenges to the efforts of obtaining axenic cultures of rumen methanogens, and consequently, the information on their physiological properties remains in most part inferred from those of their non-rumen representatives. This review presents the current knowledge of rumen methanogens and their metabolic contributions to enteric methane production. It also identifies the respective critical gaps that need to be filled for aiding the efforts to mitigate methane emission from livestock operations and at the same time increasing the productivity in this critical agriculture sector.