Geochemical Tracers and Rates of Short-Chain Alkane Production in Gulf of Mexico Cold Seep Sediments

Monday, 15 December 2014
Ryan Sibert1, Bernie B Bernard2, James M Brooks2, Kimberley Hunter1 and Samantha Benton Joye3, (1)University of Georgia, Marine Science Department, Athens, GA, United States, (2)TDI-Brooks International, Inc., College Station, TX, United States, (3)Univ Georgia, Athens, GA, United States
The organic-rich cold seep sediments in the deep Gulf of Mexico commonly contain mixtures of light hydrocarbon gases either dissolved in pore fluids, adsorbed to sediment particles, trapped in methane ice, or as free gas. The dominant component in these natural gas mixtures is typically methane (C1), but ethane (C2) and propane (C3) are nearly always present in trace or major amounts. The ratio of C1:C2:C3 varies but C2 and C3 are typically present at single digit percent levels, whereas methane usually dominates at >80%. Methane production proceeds by at least two well-studied mechanisms: either 1) by thermocatalytic cracking of fossil organic matter, or 2) as a direct product of microbial metabolism, methanogenesis. In contrast, ethane and propane production in deep-sea sediments has been historically attributed only to thermocatalytic processes. However, limited data suggests production of C2/C3 compounds through the activity of archaea. Such studies of microbial- driven dynamics of C2/C3 gases (i.e. ‘alkanogenesis’) in cold seep sediments are rare. Furthermore, the identities of potential substrates are poorly constrained and no attempt has been made to quantify production rates of C2/C3 gases. However, carbon isotopic data on ethane and propane from deep cores from the Gulf of Mexico suggest alkanogenesis at depth in the sediment column and alkane oxidation in uppermost oxidant-rich sediments. Here, we present the results of a series of incubation experiments using sediment slurries culled from GC600, one of the most prolific natural oil and gas seeps in the Gulf of Mexico. Rates of both alkane production and oxidation were measured under a variety of conditions to assess the net rates of alkane production and elucidate the driving microbiological mechanisms and controls on the central processes of >C1 alkane cycling in cold seep sediments. Microbial processes are important both in terms of alkane production and oxidation, raising many questions as to the biological production of these gases across the biosphere.