Putative fossils of chemotrophic microbes preserved in seep carbonates from Vestnesa Ridge, off northwest Svalbard, Norway


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The microbial key players at methane seeps are methanotrophic archaea and sulfate-reducing bacteria. They form spherical aggregates and jointly mediate the sulfate-dependent anaerobic oxidation of methane (SD-AOM: CH4 + SO42- -> HCO3- + HS- + H2O), thereby inducing the precipitation of authigenic seep carbonates. While seep carbonates constitute valuable archives for molecular fossils of SD-AOM-mediating microbes, no microfossils have been identified as AOM aggregates to date. We report clustered spherical microstructures engulfed in C-13-depleted aragonite cement (delta C-13 values as low as -33 parts per thousand) of Pleistocene seep carbonates. The clusters comprise Mg-calcite spheres between similar to 5 mu m (single spheres) and similar to 30 mu m (clusters) in diameter. Scanning and transmission electron microscopy revealed a porous nanocrystalline fabric in the core area of the spheres surrounded by one or two concentric layers of Mg-calcite crystals. In situ measured sphere delta C-13 values as low as -42 parts per thousand indicate that methane-derived carbon is the dominant carbon source. The size and concentric layering of the spheres resembles mineralized aggregates of natural anaerobic methanotrophic archaea (ANME) of the ANME-2 group surrounded by one or two layers of sulfate-reducing bacteria. Abundant carbonate-bound C-13-depleted lipid biomarkers of archaea and bacteria indicative of the ANME-2-Desulfosarcina/Desulfococcus consortium agree with SD-AOM-mediating microbes as critical agents of carbonate precipitation. Given the morphological resemblance, in concert with negative in situ delta C-13 values and abundant SD-AOM-diagnostic biomarkers, the clustered spheres likely represent fossils of SD-AOM-mediating microbes.
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