Iron (oxyhydr)oxide microbial mats in modern to ∼100 ka tufa terraces are present in a cold spring system along Ten Mile Graben, southeastern Utah, USA. Mats exhibit morphological, chemical, and textural biosignatures and show diagenetic changes that occur over millennial scales. The Jurassic Brushy Basin Member of the Morrison Formation in the Four Corners region of the USA also exhibits comparable microbial fossils and iron (oxyhydr)oxide biosignatures in the lacustrine unit.
Both the modern spring system and Brushy Basin Member represent alkaline, saline, groundwater-fed systems and preserve diatoms and other similar algal forms with cellular elaboration. Two distinct suites of elements (1. C, Fe, As and 2. C, S, Se, P) are associated with microbial fossils in modern and ancient iron (oxyhydr)oxides and may be potential markers for biosignatures. The presence of ferrihydrite in ∼100 ka fossil microbial mats and Jurassic rocks suggests that this thermodynamically unstable mineral may also be a potential biomarker.
One of the most extensive sedimentary records on Mars is exposed in Gale Crater and consists of non-acidic clays and sulfates possibly of lacustrine origin. These terrestrial iron (oxyhydr)oxide examples are a valuable analogue because of similar iron- and clay-rich host rock compositions and will help (1) understand diagenetic processes in a non-acidic, saline lacustrine environment such as the sedimentary rocks in Gale Crater, (2) document specific biomediated textures, (3) demonstrate how biomediated textures might persist or respond to diagenesis over time, and (4) provide a ground truth library of textures to explore and compare in extraterrestrial iron (oxyhydr)oxides, where future explorations hope to detect past evidence of life. Key Words: Biogeochemistry—Mars—Biosignatures—Diagenesis—Iron oxides. Astrobiology 14, 1–14.
The bicarbonate-buffered anoxic vent waters at Chocolate Pots hot springs in Yellowstone National Park are 51–54°C, pH 5.5–6.0, and are very high in dissolved Fe(II) at 5.8–5.9 mg/L. The aqueous Fe(II) is oxidized by a combination of biotic and abiotic mechanisms and precipitated as primary siliceous nanophase iron oxyhydroxides (ferrihydrite). Four distinct prokaryotic photosynthetic microbial mat types grow on top of these iron deposits. Lipids were used to characterize the community composition of the microbial mats, link source organisms to geologically significant biomarkers, and investigate how iron mineralization degrades the lipid signature of the community. The phospholipid and glycolipid fatty acid profiles of the highest-temperature mats indicate that they are dominated by cyanobacteria and green nonsulfur filamentous anoxygenic phototrophs (FAPs). Diagnostic lipid biomarkers of the cyanobacteria include midchain branched mono- and dimethylalkanes and, most notably, 2-methylbacteriohopanepolyol. Diagnostic lipid biomarkers of the FAPs (Chloroflexus and Roseiflexus spp.) include wax esters and a long-chain tri-unsaturated alkene. Surprisingly, the lipid biomarkers resisted the earliest stages of microbial degradation and diagenesis to survive in the iron oxides beneath the mats. Understanding the potential of particular sedimentary environments to capture and preserve fossil biosignatures is of vital importance in the selection of the best landing sites for future astrobiological missions to Mars. This study explores the nature of organic degradation processes in moderately thermal Fe(II)-rich groundwater springs—environmental conditions that have been previously identified as highly relevant for Mars exploration. Key Words: Lipid biomarkers—Photosynthesis—Iron—Hot springs—Mars. Astrobiology 14, 502–521.
The Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) is an oasis in the desert of Mexico characterized by low phosphorus availability and by its great diversity of microbial mats. We compared the metagenomes of two aquatic microbial mats from the CCB with different nutrient limitations. We observed that the red mat was P-limited and dominated by Pseudomonas, while the green mat was N-limited and had higher species richness, with Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria as the most abundant phyla. From their gene content, we deduced that both mats were very metabolically diverse despite their use of different strategies to cope with their respective environments. The red mat was found to be mostly heterotrophic, while the green mat was more autotrophic. The red mat had a higher number of transporters in general, including transporters of cellobiose and osmoprotectants. We suggest that generalists with plastic genomes dominate the red mat, while specialists with minimal genomes dominate the green mat. Nutrient limitation was a common scenario on the early planet; despite this, biogeochemical cycles were performed, and as a result the planet changed. The metagenomes of microbial mats from the CCB show the different strategies a community can use to cope with oligotrophy and persist. Key Words: Microbial mats—Metagenomics—Metabolism. Astrobiology 12, 648–658.
Microbial mats are self-sustained, functionally complex ecosystems that make good models for the understanding of past and present microbial ecosystems as well as putative extraterrestrial ecosystems. Ecological theory suggests that the composition of these communities might be affected by nutrient availability and disturbance frequency. We characterized two microbial mats from two contrasting environments in the oligotrophic Cuatro Ciénegas Basin: a permanent green pool and a red desiccation pond. We analyzed their taxonomic structure and composition by means of 16S rRNA clone libraries and metagenomics and inferred their metabolic role by the analysis of functional traits in the most abundant organisms. Both mats showed a high diversity with metabolically diverse members and strongly differed in structure and composition. The green mat had a higher species richness and evenness than the red mat, which was dominated by a lineage of Pseudomonas. Autotrophs were abundant in the green mat, and heterotrophs were abundant in the red mat. When comparing with other mats and stromatolites, we found that taxonomic composition was not shared at species level but at order level, which suggests environmental filtering for phylogenetically conserved functional traits with random selection of particular organisms. The highest diversity and composition similarity was observed among systems from stable environments, which suggests that disturbance regimes might affect diversity more strongly than nutrient availability, since oligotrophy does not appear to prevent the establishment of complex and diverse microbial mat communities. These results are discussed in light of the search for extraterrestrial life. Key Words: Cuatro Ciénegas—Metagenomics—Microbial mats—Oligotrophic—Phosphorus limitation—Stromatolites. Astrobiology 12, 659–673.
Fumaroles represent a very important potential habitat on Mars because they contain water and nutrients. Global deposition of volcanic sulfate aerosols may also have been an important soil-forming process affecting large areas of Mars. Here we identify alteration from the Senator fumarole, northwest Nevada, USA, and in low-temperature environments near the fumarole to help interpret fumarolic and acid vapor alteration of rocks and soils on Mars. We analyzed soil samples and fluorapatite, olivine, and basaltic glass placed at and near the fumarole in in situ mineral alteration experiments designed to measure weathering under natural field conditions.
Using synchrotron X-ray diffraction, we clearly observe hydroxyl-carbonate-bearing fluorapatite as a fumarolic alteration product of the original material, fluorapatite. The composition of apatites as well as secondary phosphates has been previously used to infer magmatic conditions as well as fumarolic conditions on Mars. To our knowledge, the observations reported here represent the first documented instance of formation of hydroxyl-carbonate-bearing apatite from fluorapatite in a field experiment. Retreat of olivine surfaces, as well as abundant NH4-containing minerals, was also characteristic of fumarolic alteration. In contrast, alteration in the nearby low-temperature environment resulted in formation of large pits on olivine surfaces, which were clearly distinguishable from the fumarolic alteration. Raman signatures of some fumarolically impacted surfaces are consistent with detection of the biological molecules chlorophyll and scytenomin, potentially useful biosignatures. Observations of altered minerals on Mars may therefore help identify the environment of formation and understand the aqueous history and potential habitability of that planet. Key Words: Fumaroles—Mars—Olivine—Acidophile—Geothermal—Search for life (biosignatures)—Synchrotron X-ray diffraction. Astrobiology 13, 1049–1064.
The Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) is a rare oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. It has a biological endemism similar to that of the Galapagos Islands, and its spring-fed ecosystems have very low nutrient content (nitrogen or phosphorous) and are dominated by diverse microbialites. Thus, it has proven to be a distinctive opportunity for the field of astrobiology, as the CCB can be seen as a proxy for an earlier time in Earth's history, in particular the late Precambrian, the biological frontier when prokaryotic life yielded at least partial dominance to eukaryotes and multicellular life. It is a kind of ecological time machine that provides abundant opportunities for collaborative investigations by geochemists, geologists, ecologists, and population biologists in the study of the evolutionary processes that structured Earth-based life, especially in the microbial realm. The CCB is an object of investigation for the identification of biosignatures of past and present biota that can be used in our search for extraterrestrial life. In this review, we summarize CCB research efforts that began with microbial ecology and population biology projects and have since been expanded into broader efforts that involve biogeochemistry, comparative genomics, and assessments of biosignatures. We also propose that, in the future, the CCB is sanctioned as a “Precambrian Park” for astrobiology. Key Words: Microbial mats—Stromatolites—Early Earth—Extremophilic microorganisms—Microbial ecology. Astrobiology 12, 641–647.
The community structure of pink-colored microbial mats naturally occurring in a swine wastewater ditch was studied by culture-independent biomarker and molecular methods as well as by conventional cultivation methods. The wastewater in the ditch contained acetate and propionate as the major carbon nutrients. Thin-section electron microscopy revealed that the microbial mats were dominated by rod-shaped cells containing intracytoplasmic membranes of the lamellar type. Smaller numbers of oval cells with vesicular internal membranes were also found. Spectroscopic analyses of the cell extract from the biomats showed the presence of bacteriochlorophyll a and carotenoids of the spirilloxanthin series. Ubiquinone-10 was detected as the major quinone. A clone library of the photosynthetic gene, pufM, constructed from the bulk DNA of the biomats showed that all of the clones were derived from members of the genera Rhodobacter and Rhodopseudomonas. The dominant phototrophic bacteria from the microbial mats were isolated by cultivation methods and identified as being of the genera Rhodobacter and Rhodopseudomonas by studying 16S rRNA and pufM gene sequence information. Experiments of oxygen uptake with lower fatty acids revealed that the freshly collected microbial mats and the Rhodopseudomonas isolates had a wider spectrum of carbon utilization and a higher affinity for acetate than did the Rhodobacter isolates. These results demonstrate that the microbial mats were dominated by the purple nonsulfur bacteria of the genera Rhodobacter and Rhodopseudomonas, and the bioavailability of lower fatty acids in wastewater is a key factor allowing the formation of visible microbial mats with these phototrophs.
In this study we determined the composition and biogeochemistry of novel, brightly colored, white and orange microbial mats at the surface of a brine seep at the outer rim of the Chefren mud volcano. These mats were interspersed with one another, but their underlying sediment biogeochemistries differed considerably. Microscopy revealed that the white mats were granules composed of elemental S filaments, similar to those produced by the sulfide-oxidizing epsilonproteobacterium “Candidatus Arcobacter sulfidicus.” Fluorescence in situ hybridization indicated that microorganisms targeted by a “Ca. Arcobacter sulfidicus”-specific oligonucleotide probe constituted up to 24% of the total the cells within these mats. Several 16S rRNA gene sequences from organisms closely related to “Ca. Arcobacter sulfidicus” were identified. In contrast, the orange mat consisted mostly of bright orange flakes composed of empty Fe(III) (hydr)oxide-coated microbial sheaths, similar to those produced by the neutrophilic Fe(II)-oxidizing betaproteobacterium Leptothrix ochracea. None of the 16S rRNA gene sequences obtained from these samples were closely related to sequences of known neutrophilic aerobic Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria. The sediments below both types of mats showed relatively high sulfate reduction rates (300 nmol·cm−3·day−1) partially fueled by the anaerobic oxidation of methane (10 to 20 nmol·cm−3·day−1). Free sulfide produced below the white mat was depleted by sulfide oxidation within the mat itself. Below the orange mat free Fe(II) reached the surface layer and was depleted in part by microbial Fe(II) oxidation. Both mats and the sediments underneath them hosted very diverse microbial communities and contained mineral precipitates, most likely due to differences in fluid flow patterns.
We made environmental measurements to characterize contaminants generated when basaltic lava from Hawaii's Kilauea volcano enters sea water. This interaction of lava with sea water produces large clouds of mist (LAZE). Island winds occasionally directed the LAZE toward the adjacent village of Kalapana and the Hawaii Volcanos National Park, creating health concerns. Environmental samples were taken to measure airborne concentrations of respirable dust, crystalline silica and other mineral compounds, fibers, trace metals, inorganic acids, and organic and inorganic gases. The LAZE contained quantifiable concentrations of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and hydrofluoric acid (HF); HCl was predominant. HCl and HF concentrations were highest in dense plumes of LAZE near the sea. The HCl concentration at this sampling location averaged 7.1 ppm; this exceeds the current occupational exposure ceiling of 5 ppm. HF was detected in nearly half the samples, but all concentrations were <1 ppm Sulfur dioxide was detected in one of four short-term indicator tube samples at approximately 1.5 ppm. Airborne particulates were composed largely of chloride salts (predominantly sodium chloride). Crystalline silica concentrations were below detectable limits, less than approximately 0.03 mg/m3 of air. Settled dust samples showed a predominance of glass flakes and glass fibers. Airborne fibers were detected at quantifiable levels in 1 of 11 samples. These fibers were composed largely of hydrated calcium sulfate. These findings suggest that individuals should avoid concentrated plumes of LAZE near its origin to prevent over exposure to inorganic acids, specifically HCl.
Modern mineral deposits play an important role in evolutionary studies by providing clues to the formation of ancient lithified microbial communities. Here we report the presence of microbialite-forming microbial mats in different microenvironments at 32°C, 49°C, and 65°C around the geothermal spring from an abandoned oil drill in Ciocaia, Romania. The mineralogy and the macro- and microstructure of the microbialites were investigated, together with their microbial diversity based on a 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing approach. The calcium carbonate is deposited mainly in the form of calcite. At 32°C and 49°C, the microbialites show a laminated structure with visible microbial mat-carbonate crystal interactions. At 65°C, the mineral deposit is clotted, without obvious organic residues. Partial 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing showed that the relative abundance of the phylum Archaea was low at 32°C (<0.5%) but increased significantly at 65°C (36%). The bacterial diversity was either similar to other microbialites described in literature (the 32°C sample) or displayed a specific combination of phyla and classes (the 49°C and 65°C samples). Bacterial taxa were distributed among 39 phyla, out of which 14 had inferred abundances >1%. The dominant bacterial groups at 32°C were Cyanobacteria, Gammaproteobacteria, Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Chloroflexi, Thermi, Actinobacteria, Planctomycetes, and Defferibacteres. At 49°C, there was a striking dominance of the Gammaproteobacteria, followed by Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, and Armantimonadetes. The 65°C sample was dominated by Betaproteobacteria, Firmicutes, [OP1], Defferibacteres, Thermi, Thermotogae, [EM3], and Nitrospirae. Several groups from Proteobacteria and Firmicutes, together with Halobacteria and Melainabacteria were described for the first time in calcium carbonate deposits. Overall, the spring from Ciocaia emerges as a valuable site to probe microbes-minerals interrelationships along thermal and geochemical gradients.
hot springs; carbonate; biomineralization; amplicon sequencing; microbial diversity; oil drill
The ancestor of Gloeobacter violaceus PCC 7421T is believed to have diverged from that of all known cyanobacteria before the evolution of thylakoid membranes and plant plastids. The long and largely independent evolutionary history of G. violaceus presents an organism retaining ancestral features of early oxygenic photoautotrophs, and in whom cyanobacteria evolution can be investigated. No other Gloeobacter species has been described since the genus was established in 1974 (Rippka et al., Arch Microbiol 100:435). Gloeobacter affiliated ribosomal gene sequences have been reported in environmental DNA libraries, but only the type strain's genome has been sequenced. However, we report here the cultivation of a new Gloeobacter species, G. kilaueensis JS1T, from an epilithic biofilm in a lava cave in Kīlauea Caldera, Hawai'i. The strain's genome was sequenced from an enriched culture resembling a low-complexity metagenomic sample, using 9 kb paired-end 454 pyrosequences and 400 bp paired-end Illumina reads. The JS1T and G. violaceus PCC 7421T genomes have little gene synteny despite sharing 2842 orthologous genes; comparing the genomes shows they do not belong to the same species. Our results support establishing a new species to accommodate JS1T, for which we propose the name Gloeobacter kilaueensis sp. nov. Strain JS1T has been deposited in the American Type Culture Collection (BAA-2537), the Scottish Marine Institute's Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa (CCAP 1431/1), and the Belgian Coordinated Collections of Microorganisms (ULC0316). The G. kilaueensis holotype has been deposited in the Algal Collection of the US National Herbarium (US# 217948). The JS1T genome sequence has been deposited in GenBank under accession number CP003587. The G+C content of the genome is 60.54 mol%. The complete genome sequence of G. kilaueensis JS1T may further understanding of cyanobacteria evolution, and the shift from anoxygenic to oxygenic photosynthesis.
The OMEGA/Mars Express hyperspectral imager identified gypsum at several sites on Mars in 2005. These minerals constitute a direct record of past aqueous activity and are important with regard to the search of extraterrestrial life. Gale Crater was chosen as Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity's landing site because it is rich in gypsum, as are some desert soils of the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) (Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico). The gypsum of the CCB, which is overlain by minimal carbonate deposits, was the product of magmatic activity that occurred under the Tethys Sea. To examine this Mars analogue, we retrieved gypsum-rich soil samples from two contrasting sites with different humidity in the CCB. To characterize the site, we obtained nutrient data and analyzed the genes related to the N cycle (nifH, nirS, and nirK) and the bacterial community composition by using 16S rRNA clone libraries. As expected, the soil content for almost all measured forms of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus were higher at the more humid site than at the drier site. What was unexpected is the presence of a rich and divergent community at both sites, with higher taxonomic diversity at the humid site and almost no taxonomic overlap. Our results suggest that the gypsum-rich soils of the CCB host a unique microbial ecosystem that includes novel microbial assemblies. Key Words: Cuatro Ciénegas Basin—Gale Crater—Gypsum soil microbial diversity—Molecular ecology—Nitrogen cycle. Astrobiology 12, 699–709.
Bacteria and archaea sustain subsurface cave ecosystems by dominating primary production and fueling biogeochemical cyclings, despite the permanent darkness and shortage of nutrients. However, the heterogeneity and underlying mechanism of microbial diversity in caves, in particular those well connect to surface environment are largely unexplored. In this study, we examined the bacterial abundance and composition in Jinjia Cave, a small and shallow limestone cave located on the western Loess Plateau of China, by enumerating and pyrosequencing small subunit rRNA genes. The results clearly reveal the contrasting bacterial community compositions in relation to cave habitat types, i.e., rock wall deposit, aquatic sediment, and sinkhole soil, which are differentially connected to the surface environment. The deposits on the cave walls were dominated by putative cave-specific bacterial lineages within the γ-Proteobacteria or Actinobacteria that are routinely found on cave rocks around the world. In addition, sequence identity with known functional groups suggests enrichments of chemolithotrophic bacteria potentially involved in autotrophic C fixation and inorganic N transformation on rock surfaces. By contrast, bacterial communities in aquatic sediments were more closely related to those in the overlying soils. This is consistent with the similarity in elemental composition between the cave sediment and the overlying soil, implicating the influence of mineral chemistry on cave microhabitat and bacterial composition. These findings provide compelling molecular evidence of the bacterial community heterogeneity in an East Asian cave, which might be controlled by both subsurface and surface environments.
bacterial diversity; cave; rock surface; pyrosequencing; elemental composition; 16S rRNA
Microbialites are biologically mediated carbonate deposits found in diverse environments worldwide. To explore the organisms and processes involved in microbialite formation, this study integrated genomic, lipid, and both organic and inorganic stable isotopic analyses to examine five discrete depth horizons spanning the surface 25 mm of a modern freshwater microbialite from Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico. Distinct bacterial communities and geochemical signatures were observed in each microbialite layer. Photoautotrophic organisms accounted for approximately 65% of the sequences in the surface community and produced biomass with distinctive lipid biomarker and isotopic (δ13C) signatures. This photoautotrophic biomass was efficiently degraded in the deeper layers by heterotrophic organisms, primarily sulfate-reducing proteobacteria. Two spatially distinct zones of carbonate precipitation were observed within the microbialite, with the first zone corresponding to the phototroph-dominated portion of the microbialite and the second zone associated with the presence of sulfate-reducing heterotrophs. The coupling of photoautotrophic production, heterotrophic decomposition, and remineralization of organic matter led to the incorporation of a characteristic biogenic signature into the inorganic CaCO3 matrix. Overall, spatially resolved multidisciplinary analyses of the microbialite enabled correlations to be made between the distribution of specific organisms, precipitation of carbonate, and preservation of unique lipid and isotopic geochemical signatures. These findings are critical for understanding the formation of modern microbialites and have implications for the interpretation of ancient microbialite records. Key Words: Microbial ecology—Microbe-mineral interactions—Microbial mats—Stromatolites—Genomics. Astrobiology 12, 685–698.
The boundary between ice and basalt on Earth is an analogue for some near-surface environments of Mars. We investigated neutrophilic iron-oxidizing microorganisms from the basalt-ice interface in a lava tube from the Oregon Cascades with perennial ice. One of the isolates (Pseudomonas sp. HerB) can use ferrous iron Fe(II) from the igneous mineral olivine as an electron donor and O2 as an electron acceptor. The optimum growth temperature is ∼12–14°C, but growth also occurs at 5°C. Bicarbonate is a facultative source of carbon. Growth of Pseudomonas sp. HerB as a chemolithotrophic iron oxidizer with olivine as the source of energy is favored in low O2 conditions (e.g., 1.6% O2). Most likely, microbial oxidation of olivine near pH 7 requires low O2 to offset the abiotic oxidation of iron. The metabolic capabilities of this bacterium would allow it to live in near-surface, icy, volcanic environments of Mars in the present or recent geological past and make this type of physiology a prime candidate in the search for life on Mars. Key Words: Extremophiles—Mars—Olivine—Iron-oxidizing bacteria—Redox. Astrobiology 12, 9–18.
The Earth's crust hosts a subsurface, dark, and oligotrophic biosphere that is poorly understood in terms of the energy supporting its biomass production and impact on food webs at the Earth's surface. Dark oligotrophic volcanic ecosystems (DOVEs) are good environments for investigations of life in the absence of sunlight as they are poor in organics, rich in chemical reactants and well known for chemical exchange with Earth's surface systems. Ice caves near the summit of Mt. Erebus (Antarctica) offer DOVEs in a polar alpine environment that is starved in organics and with oxygenated hydrothermal circulation in highly reducing host rock. We surveyed the microbial communities using PCR, cloning, sequencing and analysis of the small subunit (16S) ribosomal and Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase (RubisCO) genes in sediment samples from three different caves, two that are completely dark and one that receives snow-filtered sunlight seasonally. The microbial communities in all three caves are composed primarily of Bacteria and fungi; Archaea were not detected. The bacterial communities from these ice caves display low phylogenetic diversity, but with a remarkable diversity of RubisCO genes including new deeply branching Form I clades, implicating the Calvin-Benson-Bassham (CBB) cycle as a pathway of CO2 fixation. The microbial communities in one of the dark caves, Warren Cave, which has a remarkably low phylogenetic diversity, were analyzed in more detail to gain a possible perspective on the energetic basis of the microbial ecosystem in the cave. Atmospheric carbon (CO2 and CO), including from volcanic emissions, likely supplies carbon and/or some of the energy requirements of chemoautotrophic microbial communities in Warren Cave and probably other Mt. Erebus ice caves. Our work casts a first glimpse at Mt. Erebus ice caves as natural laboratories for exploring carbon, energy and nutrient sources in the subsurface biosphere and the nutritional limits on life.
ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase; RubisCO; carbon monoxide; oligotrophy; chemolithoautotrophy
Karstic caves represent one of the most important subterranean carbon storages on Earth and provide windows into the subsurface. The recent discovery of the Herrenberg Cave, Germany, gave us the opportunity to investigate the diversity and potential role of bacteria in carbonate mineral formation. Calcite was the only mineral observed by Raman spectroscopy to precipitate as stalactites from seepage water. Bacterial cells were found on the surface and interior of stalactites by confocal laser scanning microscopy. Proteobacteria dominated the microbial communities inhabiting stalactites, representing more than 70% of total 16S rRNA gene clones. Proteobacteria formed 22 to 34% of the detected communities in fluvial sediments, and a large fraction of these bacteria were also metabolically active. A total of 9 isolates, belonging to the genera Arthrobacter, Flavobacterium, Pseudomonas, Rhodococcus, Serratia, and Stenotrophomonas, grew on alkaline carbonate-precipitating medium. Two cultures with the most intense precipitate formation, Arthrobacter sulfonivorans and Rhodococcus globerulus, grew as aggregates, produced extracellular polymeric substances (EPS), and formed mixtures of calcite, vaterite, and monohydrocalcite. R. globerulus formed idiomorphous crystals with rhombohedral morphology, whereas A. sulfonivorans formed xenomorphous globular crystals, evidence for taxon-specific crystal morphologies. The results of this study highlighted the importance of combining various techniques in order to understand the geomicrobiology of karstic caves, but further studies are needed to determine whether the mineralogical biosignatures found in nutrient-rich media can also be found in oligotrophic caves.
A novel hydrothermal field has been discovered at the base of Lōihi Seamount, Hawaii, at 5000 mbsl. Geochemical analyses demonstrate that ‘FeMO Deep', while only 0.2 °C above ambient seawater temperature, derives from a distal, ultra-diffuse hydrothermal source. FeMO Deep is expressed as regional seafloor seepage of gelatinous iron- and silica-rich deposits, pooling between and over basalt pillows, in places over a meter thick. The system is capped by mm to cm thick hydrothermally derived iron-oxyhydroxide- and manganese-oxide-layered crusts. We use molecular analyses (16S rDNA-based) of extant communities combined with fluorescent in situ hybridizations to demonstrate that FeMO Deep deposits contain living iron-oxidizing Zetaproteobacteria related to the recently isolated strain Mariprofundus ferroxydans. Bioenergetic calculations, based on in-situ electrochemical measurements and cell counts, indicate that reactions between iron and oxygen are important in supporting chemosynthesis in the mats, which we infer forms a trophic base of the mat ecosystem. We suggest that the biogenic FeMO Deep hydrothermal deposit represents a modern analog for one class of geological iron deposits known as ‘umbers' (for example, Troodos ophilolites, Cyprus) because of striking similarities in size, setting and internal structures.
geomicrobiology; deep biosphere; hydrothermal; iron bacteria; iron oxidation
The organic record of Earth older than ∼3.8 Ga has been effectively erased. Some insight is provided to us by meteorites as well as remote and direct observations of asteroids and comets left over from the formation of the Solar System. These primitive objects provide a record of early chemical evolution and a sample of material that has been delivered to Earth's surface throughout the past 4.5 billion years. Yet an effective chronicle of organic evolution on all Solar System objects, including that on planetary surfaces, is more difficult to find. Fortunately, early Earth would not have been the only recipient of organic matter–containing objects in the early Solar System. For example, a recently proposed model suggests the possibility that volatiles, including organic material, remain archived in buried paleoregolith deposits intercalated with lava flows on the Moon. Where asteroids and comets allow the study of processes before planet formation, the lunar record could extend that chronicle to early biological evolution on the planets. In this study, we use selected free and polymeric organic materials to assess the hypothesis that organic matter can survive the effects of heating in the lunar regolith by overlying lava flows. Results indicate that the presence of lunar regolith simulant appears to promote polymerization and, therefore, preservation of organic matter. Once polymerized, the mineral-hosted newly formed organic network is relatively protected from further thermal degradation. Our findings reveal the thermal conditions under which preservation of organic matter on the Moon is viable. Key Words: Moon—Regolith—Organic preservation—Biomarkers. Astrobiology 15, 154–168.
We applied nucleic acid-based molecular methods, combined with estimates of biomass (ATP), pigments, and microelectrode measurements of chemical gradients, to map microbial diversity vertically on a millimeter scale in a hypersaline microbial mat from Guerrero Negro, Baja California Sur, Mexico. To identify the constituents of the mat, small-subunit rRNA genes were amplified by PCR from community genomic DNA extracted from layers, cloned, and sequenced. Bacteria dominated the mat and displayed unexpected and unprecedented diversity. The majority (1,336) of the 1,586 bacterial 16S rRNA sequences generated were unique, representing 752 species (≥97% rRNA sequence identity) in 42 of the main bacterial phyla, including 15 novel candidate phyla. The diversity of the mat samples differentiated according to the chemical milieu defined by concentrations of O2 and H2S. Bacteria of the phylum Chloroflexi formed the majority of the biomass by percentage of bulk rRNA and of clones in rRNA gene libraries. This result contradicts the general belief that cyanobacteria dominate these communities. Although cyanobacteria constituted a large fraction of the biomass in the upper few millimeters (>80% of the total rRNA and photosynthetic pigments), Chloroflexi sequences were conspicuous throughout the mat. Filamentous Chloroflexi bacteria were identified by fluorescence in situ hybridization within the polysaccharide sheaths of the prominent cyanobacterium Microcoleus chthonoplastes, in addition to free living in the mat. The biological complexity of the mat far exceeds that observed in other polysaccharide-rich microbial ecosystems, such as the human and mouse distal guts, and suggests that positive feedbacks exist between chemical complexity and biological diversity.
A conspicuous biomorphic ovoid structure has been discovered in the Nakhla martian meteorite, made of nanocrystalline iron-rich saponitic clay and amorphous material. The ovoid is indigenous to Nakhla and occurs within a late-formed amorphous mesostasis region of rhyolitic composition that is interstitial to two clinopyroxene grains with Al-rich rims, and contains acicular apatite crystals, olivine, sulfides, Ti-rich magnetite, and a new mineral of the rhoenite group. To infer the origin of the ovoid, a large set of analytical tools was employed, including scanning electron microscopy and backscattered electron imaging, wavelength-dispersive X-ray analysis, X-ray mapping, Raman spectroscopy, time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry analysis, high-resolution transmission electron microscope imaging, and atomic force microscope topographic mapping. The concentric wall of the ovoid surrounds an originally hollow volume and exhibits internal layering of contrasting nanotextures but uniform chemical composition, and likely inherited its overall shape from a preexisting vesicle in the mesostasis glass. A final fibrous layer of Fe-rich phases blankets the interior surfaces of the ovoid wall structure. There is evidence that the parent rock of Nakhla has undergone a shock event from a nearby bolide impact that melted the rims of pyroxene and the interstitial matter and initiated an igneous hydrothermal system of rapidly cooling fluids, which were progressively mixed with fluids from the melted permafrost. Sharp temperature gradients were responsible for the crystallization of Al-rich clinopyroxene rims, rhoenite, acicular apatites, and the quenching of the mesostasis glass and the vesicle. During the formation of the ovoid structure, episodic fluid infiltration events resulted in the precipitation of saponite rinds around the vesicle walls, altered pyrrhotite to marcasite, and then isolated the ovoid wall structure from the rest of the system by depositing a layer of iron oxides/hydroxides. Carbonates, halite, and sulfates were deposited last within interstitial spaces and along fractures. Among three plausible competing hypotheses here, this particular abiotic scenario is considered to be the most reasonable explanation for the formation of the ovoid structure in Nakhla, and although compelling evidence for a biotic origin is lacking, it is evident that the martian subsurface contains niche environments where life could develop. Key Words: Biomorph—Clays—Search for life (biosignatures)—Martian meteorites—Hydrothermal systems. Astrobiology 14, 651–693.
Marburg virus (family Filoviridae) causes sporadic outbreaks of severe hemorrhagic disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Bats have been implicated as likely natural reservoir hosts based most recently on an investigation of cases among miners infected in 2007 at the Kitaka mine, Uganda, which contained a large population of Marburg virus-infected Rousettus aegyptiacus fruit bats. Described here is an ecologic investigation of Python Cave, Uganda, where an American and a Dutch tourist acquired Marburg virus infection in December 2007 and July 2008. More than 40,000 R. aegyptiacus were found in the cave and were the sole bat species present. Between August 2008 and November 2009, 1,622 bats were captured and tested for Marburg virus. Q-RT-PCR analysis of bat liver/spleen tissues indicated ∼2.5% of the bats were actively infected, seven of which yielded Marburg virus isolates. Moreover, Q-RT-PCR-positive lung, kidney, colon and reproductive tissues were found, consistent with potential for oral, urine, fecal or sexual transmission. The combined data for R. aegyptiacus tested from Python Cave and Kitaka mine indicate low level horizontal transmission throughout the year. However, Q-RT-PCR data show distinct pulses of virus infection in older juvenile bats (∼six months of age) that temporarily coincide with the peak twice-yearly birthing seasons. Retrospective analysis of historical human infections suspected to have been the result of discrete spillover events directly from nature found 83% (54/65) events occurred during these seasonal pulses in virus circulation, perhaps demonstrating periods of increased risk of human infection. The discovery of two tags at Python Cave from bats marked at Kitaka mine, together with the close genetic linkages evident between viruses detected in geographically distant locations, are consistent with R. aegyptiacus bats existing as a large meta-population with associated virus circulation over broad geographic ranges. These findings provide a basis for developing Marburg hemorrhagic fever risk reduction strategies.
Marburg virus, like its close relative Ebola virus, can cause large outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever with case fatalities nearing 90%. For decades the identity of the natural reservoir was unknown. However, in 2007 Marburg viruses were isolated directly from Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) that inhabited a Ugandan gold mine where miners were previously infected. Soon after, two tourists became infected with Marburg virus after visiting nearby Python Cave, a popular attraction in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. This cave also contained R. aegyptiacus bats (∼40,000 animals). These events prompted a long-term investigation of Python Cave to determine if, 1) R. aegyptiacus in the cave carried infectious Marburg virus genetically similar to that found in the tourists, and 2) what ecological factors might influence virus spillover to humans. In the study, we found that, 1) approximately 2.5% of the bat colony is actively infected at any one time and that virus isolates from bats are genetically similar to those from infected tourists, and 2) specific age groups of bats (juveniles∼six months of age) are particularly likely to be infected at specific times of the year that roughly coincide with historical dates of Marburg virus spillover into humans.
Photosynthetic microbial mats are complex, stratified ecosystems in which high rates of primary production create a demand for nitrogen, met partially by N2 fixation. Dinitrogenase reductase (nifH) genes and transcripts from Cyanobacteria and heterotrophic bacteria (for example, Deltaproteobacteria) were detected in these mats, yet their contribution to N2 fixation is poorly understood. We used a combined approach of manipulation experiments with inhibitors, nifH sequencing and single-cell isotope analysis to investigate the active diazotrophic community in intertidal microbial mats at Laguna Ojo de Liebre near Guerrero Negro, Mexico. Acetylene reduction assays with specific metabolic inhibitors suggested that both sulfate reducers and members of the Cyanobacteria contributed to N2 fixation, whereas 15N2 tracer experiments at the bulk level only supported a contribution of Cyanobacteria. Cyanobacterial and nifH Cluster III (including deltaproteobacterial sulfate reducers) sequences dominated the nifH gene pool, whereas the nifH transcript pool was dominated by sequences related to Lyngbya spp. Single-cell isotope analysis of 15N2-incubated mat samples via high-resolution secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) revealed that Cyanobacteria were enriched in 15N, with the highest enrichment being detected in Lyngbya spp. filaments (on average 4.4 at% 15N), whereas the Deltaproteobacteria (identified by CARD-FISH) were not significantly enriched. We investigated the potential dilution effect from CARD-FISH on the isotopic composition and concluded that the dilution bias was not substantial enough to influence our conclusions. Our combined data provide evidence that members of the Cyanobacteria, especially Lyngbya spp., actively contributed to N2 fixation in the intertidal mats, whereas support for significant N2 fixation activity of the targeted deltaproteobacterial sulfate reducers could not be found.
Microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) result from the response of microbial mats to physical sediment dynamics. MISS are cosmopolitan and found in many modern environments, including shelves, tidal flats, lagoons, riverine shores, lakes, interdune areas, and sabkhas. The structures record highly diverse communities of microbial mats and have been reported from numerous intervals in the geological record up to 3.2 billion years (Ga) old. This contribution describes a suite of MISS from some of the oldest well-preserved sedimentary rocks in the geological record, the early Archean (ca. 3.48 Ga) Dresser Formation, Western Australia. Outcrop mapping at the meter to millimeter scale defined five sub-environments characteristic of an ancient coastal sabkha. These sub-environments contain associations of distinct macroscopic and microscopic MISS. Macroscopic MISS include polygonal oscillation cracks and gas domes, erosional remnants and pockets, and mat chips. Microscopic MISS comprise tufts, sinoidal structures, and laminae fabrics; the microscopic laminae are composed of primary carbonaceous matter, pyrite, and hematite, plus trapped and bound grains. Identical suites of MISS occur in equivalent environmental settings through the entire subsequent history of Earth including the present time. This work extends the geological record of MISS by almost 300 million years. Complex mat-forming microbial communities likely existed almost 3.5 billion years ago. Key Words: Archean—Biofilms—Microbial mats—Early Earth—Evolution. Astrobiology 13, 1103–1124.
At Chocolate Pots Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park the source waters have a pH near neutral, contain high concentrations of reduced iron, and lack sulfide. An iron formation that is associated with cyanobacterial mats is actively deposited. The uptake of [14C]bicarbonate was used to assess the impact of ferrous iron on photosynthesis in this environment. Photoautotrophy in some of the mats was stimulated by ferrous iron (1.0 mM). Microelectrodes were used to determine the impact of photosynthetic activity on the oxygen content and the pH in the mat and sediment microenvironments. Photosynthesis increased the oxygen concentration to 200% of air saturation levels in the top millimeter of the mats. The oxygen concentration decreased with depth and in the dark. Light-dependent increases in pH were observed. The penetration of light in the mats and in the sediments was determined. Visible radiation was rapidly attenuated in the top 2 mm of the iron-rich mats. Near-infrared radiation penetrated deeper. Iron was totally oxidized in the top few millimeters, but reduced iron was detected at greater depths. By increasing the pH and the oxygen concentration in the surface sediments, the cyanobacteria could potentially increase the rate of iron oxidation in situ. This high-iron-content hot spring provides a suitable model for studying the interactions of microbial photosynthesis and iron deposition and the role of photosynthesis in microbial iron cycling. This model may help clarify the potential role of photosynthesis in the deposition of Precambrian banded iron formations.