National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2010

Elevated concentrations of formate, acetate and dissolved organic carbon found at the Lost City hydrothermal field

Lang, S.Q., D.A. Butterfield, M. Schulte, D.S. Kelley, and M.D. Lilley

Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 74(3), 941–952, doi: 10.1016/j.gca.2009.10.045 (2010)

Fluids from the ultramafic-hosted Lost City hydrothermal field were analyzed for total dissolved organic carbon and dissolved organic acids. Formate (36–158 µmol/kg) and acetate (1–35 µmol/kg) concentrations are higher than in other fluids from unsedimented hydrothermal vents, and are a higher ratio of the total dissolved organic carbon than has been found in most marine geothermal systems. Isotopic evidence is consistent with an abiotic formation mechanism for formate, perhaps during serpentinization processes in the sub-surface. Further support comes from previous studies where the abiological formation of low molecular weight organic acids has been shown to be thermodynamically favorable during hydrothermal alteration of olivine, and laboratory studies in which the reduction of carbon dioxide to formate has been confirmed. As the second most prevalent carbon species after methane, formate may be an important substrate to microbial communities in an environment where dissolved inorganic carbon is limited. Acetate is found in locations where sulfate reduction is believed to be important and is likely to be a microbial by-product, formed either directly by autotrophic metabolic activity or indirectly during the fermentative degradation of larger organic molecules. Given the common occurrence of exposed ultramafic rocks and active serpentinization within the worlds ocean basins, the abiotic formation of formate may be an important process supporting life in these high pH environments and may have critical implications to understanding the organic precursors from which life evolved.

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