Recalcitrant Carbonaceous Material: A Source of Electron Donors for Anaerobic Microbial Metabolisms in the Subsurface?

Monday, 15 December 2014
Sophie L. Nixon1, Wren Montgomery2, Mark A Sephton2 and Charles S Cockell3, (1)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, EH9, United Kingdom, (2)Imperial College London, London, United Kingdom, (3)University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
More than 90% of organic material on Earth resides in sedimentary rocks in the form of kerogens; fossilized organic matter formed through selective preservation of high molecular weight biopolymers under anoxic conditions. Despite its prevalence in the subsurface, the extent to which this material supports microbial metabolisms is unknown. Whilst aerobic microorganisms are known to derive energy from kerogens within shales, utilization in anaerobic microbial metabolisms that proliferate in the terrestrial subsurface, such as microbial iron reduction, has yet to be demonstrated.

Data are presented from microbial growth experiments in which kerogens and shales were supplied as the sole electron donor source for microbial iron reduction by an enrichment culture. Four well-characterized kerogens samples (representative of Types I-IV, classified by starting material), and two shale samples, were assessed. Organic analysis was carried out to investigate major compound classes present in each starting material. Parallel experiments were conducted to test inhibition of microbial iron reduction in the presence of each material when the culture was supplied with a full redox couple.

The results demonstrate that iron-reducing microorganisms in this culture were unable to use kerogens and shales as a source of electron donors for energy acquisition, despite the presence of compound classes known to support this metabolism. Furthermore, the presence of these materials was found to inhibit microbial iron reduction to varying degrees, with some samples leading to complete inhibition. These results suggest that recalcitrant carbonaceous material in the terrestrial subsurface is not available for microbial iron reduction and similar metabolisms, such as sulphate-reduction.

Further research is needed to investigate the inhibition exerted by these materials, and to assess whether these findings apply to other microbial consortia. These results may have significant implications for the role of anaerobic microbial metabolisms in the subsurface terrestrial carbon cycle. Kerogens are chemically similar to organic material in carbonaceous chondrites. As such, further study may provide insight into the potential availability of organic compounds for microbial metabolisms operating in the subsurface of Mars.