Dissolved Oxygen and Sulfide Define the Boundaries of Thermophilic Microbial Iron Mats

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Brian St Clair and Everett Shock, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, United States
Microbial iron cycling can be found in hot springs throughout Yellowstone National Park, where the process is often visibly apparent as red iron oxyhydroxide staining. We measured rates of microbial and abiotic iron oxidation and reduction in systems ranging from pH 2 to 6 and 40° to 90°C. Measurements of numerous solutes, including oxygen, sulfide, and iron, were also made on outflow channels of springs containing apparent iron metabolism. In all cases, > 16 µM dissolved oxygen was required for visible iron oxidation products to occur. Oxygen concentrations below this level do not necessarily preclude microbial iron oxidation coupled to oxygen, only the accumulation of oxidation products. Kinetics experiments conducted at these iron mats suggest that the rate of microbial iron oxidation falls below the rate of microbial reduction when dissolved oxygen falls below this concentration. In outflow channels, this is often visibly apparent as a sharp boundary between the presence and lack of red iron oxidation products. Locations with changing temperature, pH, flow rate and other factors experience changing oxygen concentrations, which causes the boundary to shift from year to year. The boundaries of iron mats are also influenced in several locations by the concentration of total dissolved sulfide. Experiments with enrichment cultures and field observations show that sulfide is not toxic to iron oxidizers, but rather inhibits the accumulation of dissolved oxygen. Microbial and abiotic sulfide oxidation, leading to visible sulfur precipitation, together with degassing of hydrogen sulfide, contribute to keeping oxygen levels low. Typically, only where sulfide concentrations fall below 20 µM are iron mats able to form. Enrichment cultures of iron oxidizers, however, grow easily at levels exceeding 100 µM sulfide. Only a handful of field locations appear to have simultaneous sulfur and iron precipitation zones. Formation of iron oxidation mats occurs at highly consistent concentrations of dissolved oxygen and sulfide in Yellowstone hot springs, and can even serve as visible indicators of the abundance of these geochemical constituents.