Investigations on the “Extreme” Microbial Methane Cycle within the Sediments of an Acidic Impoundment of the Inactive Sulfur Bank Mercury Mine: Herman Pit, Clear Lake, California.

Monday, 15 December 2014
Ronald S Oremland1, Shaun M Baesman1, Laurence G Miller1, Jeremy Hu-Chin Wei2 and Paula V Welander2, (1)USGS WRD, Menlo Park, CA, United States, (2)Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States
The inactive Sulfur Bank Mercury Mine is located in a volcanic region having geothermal flow and gas inputs into the Herman Pit impoundment. The acidic (pH 2 – 4) waters of the Herman Pit are permeated by hundreds of continuous flow gas seeps that contain CO2, H2S and CH4. We sampled one seep and found it to be composed of 95 % CO2 and 5 % CH4, in agreement with earlier measurements. Only a trace of ethane (10 – 20 ppm) was found and propane was below detection, resulting in a high CH4/C2H6 + C3H8 ratio of > 5,000, while the δ13CH4 and the δ13CO2 were respectively – 24 and – 11 per mil. Collectively, these results suggested a complex origin for the methane, being made up of a thermogenic component resulting from pyrolysis of buried organics, along with an active methanogenic portion. The relatively 12C-enriched value for the CO2 suggested a reworking of the ebullitive methane by methanotrophic bacteria. We found that dissolved methane in the collected water from 2-4 m depth was high (~ 400 µM), which would support methanotrophy in the lake's aerobic biomes. We therefore tested the ability of bottom sediments to consume methane by conducting aerobic incubations of slurried bottom sediments. Methane was removed from the headspace of live slurries, and subsequent additions of methane to the headspace over the course of 2-3 months resulted in faster removal rates suggesting a buildup of the population of methanotrophs. This activity could be transferred to an artificial medium originally devised for the cultivation of acidophilic iron oxidizing bacteria (Silverman and Lundgren, 1959; J. Bacteriol. 77: 642 – 647), suggesting the possibility of future cultivation of acidophilic methanotrophs. A successful extraction of some hopanoid compounds from the sediments was achieved, although the results were too preliminary at the time of this writing to identify any hopanoids specifically linked to methanotrophic bacteria. Further efforts to amplify functional genes for methane oxidizing bacteria (e.g., pMMO) from extracted sediment DNA are underway.