National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2012

Microbial utilization of abiogenic hydrogen and carbon in a serpentinite-hosted system

Lang, S.Q., G.L. Früh-Green, S.M. Bernasconi, M.D. Lilley, G. Proskurowski, S. Méhay, and D.A. Butterfield

Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 92, 82–99, doi: 10.1016/j.gca.2012.06.006 (2012)

Mantle rocks exposed on the seafloor constitute a highly reactive chemical and thermal system, in which interaction with seawater to produce serpentinite has major consequences for lithospheric cooling, global geochemical cycles, and microbial activity. Serpentinite-hosted hydrothermal activity is exemplified by the Lost City Hydrothermal Field (30°N, Mid-Atlantic Ridge) where fluid–rock reactions in the underlying ultramafic rocks result in high concentrations of abiotic hydrogen, methane, C2+ alkanes, and formate. Such systems have been proposed as possible analogs to the Early Earth environments that gave rise to the first biochemical pathways. Thus, characterizing the local microbial communities and their potential link with abiogenic compounds is of particular significance. Here we demonstrate that in active carbonate chimneys where microbial sulfate reduction is important, up to 50% of the microbial biomass is synthesized from mantle carbon. Conversely, mantle carbon contributes only ∼10% of the biomass in areas with minimal sulfate reduction. We attribute this difference to greater incorporation of formate or methane by the dominant microbial species, the Lost City Methanosarcinales, in locations where sulfate reducers are able to facilitate this assimilation. The ability of autotrophic communities at Lost City to capitalize on the steady stream of chemical products resulting from serpentinization reactions and to utilize abiogenic mantle carbon lend credence to the hypothesis that early biosynthetic pathways could have developed in similar environments.

Feature Publications | Outstanding Scientific Publications

Contact Sandra Bigley |