Investigating effects of electron donor availability on cathodic microbial community structure and functional dynamics in electromethanogenesis

  • Alaa I. Ragab

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Microbial electrochemical technologies (MET) exploit the bioelectrocatalytic activity of microorganisms, with a main focus on waste-to-resource recovery. Electromethanogenesis, a type of MET, describes the process of CO2 reduction specifically to methane, catalyzed by methanogens that utilize the cathode directly as an electron donor or through H2 evolving from the cathode surface. Applications are mainly in the direction of bioelectrochemical power-to-gas, as well as biogas upgrading and carbon capture and utilization. As the cathode and its associated microbial consortia are key to the process, larger scale applications require improvements especially in terms of optimal operational parameters, cathode materials and the dynamics of the effect of electron transfer within the cathodic biofilm. The focus of this dissertation is to improve the understanding of the dynamics and function of methaneproducing biofilms grown on cathodes in electromethanogenic reactors in the presence of two different electron donors: the cathode and the H2 evolving from the cathode surface. The spatial homogeneity of the microbial communities across the area of the cathode was demonstrated, which is relevant for large scale applications where reproducibility is required for predictable engineered systems. Metagenomic and metatranscriptomic methods were applied to elucidate the short-term changes in the actively transcribed methanogenesis and central carbon assimilation pathways in response to varying the availability of electrons by changing the set cathode potential in a novel Methanobacterium species enriched from electromethanogenic biocathodes. Although changes in functional performance were evident with varying potential, no significant differential expression was observed and genes from the methanogenesis and carbon assimilation pathways were highly expressed throughout. Indium tin oxide (ITO) as a potentially hydrogen evolution reaction (HER) – inert cathode material was evaluated using the mixotrophic Methanosarcina barkeri in an attempt to develop a simplified material-science driven approach to future electron transfer studies. It was found to be electrochemically unstable under the tested conditions, losing its conductivity over time. Overall, the findings from these studies provide new knowledge on the effects of electron donor availability on the functional performance and the biocathode community dynamics. The understandings derived from the study are relevant to methanogenic processes and should aid in system scaleup design.
Date of AwardOct 2019
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorPascal Saikaly (Supervisor)


  • Electromethanogenesis
  • CO2 capture
  • Metatranscriptomics
  • Biocathode
  • Electron donor availability
  • Hydrogenotrophic Methanogenesis

Cite this