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Methanogenic bacteria with a coccobacillus morphology similar to Methanobrevibacter ruminantium were isolated from the bovine rumen. One isolate, 10-16B, represented a previously undescribed rumen population that, unlike M. ruminantium, synthesized coenzyme M, grew rapidly (mu = 0.24 h-1) on H2-CO2 in a complex medium, had simple nutritional requirements, and metabolized formate at reported rumen concentrations. H2 was metabolized to partial pressures 10-fold lower than those reported for the rumen. After H2 starvation for 26 h, strain 10-16B rapidly resumed growth when H2 was made available. The minimum concentrations of acetate (6 mM) and ammonia (less than 7 mM) that were required for optimal growth were lower than the reported acetate and ammonia concentrations in the rumen. Isoleucine and leucine stimulated growth, but only at concentrations (greater than 50 microM) higher than those reported for the rumen. Another coccobacillary methanogenic organism that synthesized coenzyme M was isolated from a different animal as were organisms that required an exogenous supply of coenzyme M. In general, methanogenic bacteria that required an exogenous supply of coenzyme M had lower maximum growth rates and more complex nutritional requirements than organisms that synthesized the cofactor. The ability of all isolates to metabolize formate below the detection limit of 10 microM indicated that, in contrast to previous reports, methanogenic bacteria have the potential to directly metabolize formate in the rumen. This study demonstrated that there are physiologically diverse populations of coccobacillary methanogenic bacteria in the rumen that can interact competitively and cooperatively.