Biosignatures link microorganisms to iron mineralization in a paleoaquifer

Karrie A. Weber*, Trisha L. Spanbauer, David Wacey, Matthew R. Kilburn, David B. Loope, Richard M. Kettler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


Concretions, preferentially cemented masses within sediments and sedimentary rocks, are records of sediment diagenesis and tracers of pore water chemistry. For over a century, rinded spheroidal structures that exhibit an Fe(III) oxide-rich exterior and Fe-poor core have been described as oxidation products of Fe(II) carbonate concretions. However, mechanisms governing Fe(III) oxide precipitation within these structures remain an enigma. Here we present chemical and morphological evidence of microbial biosignatures in association with Fe(III) oxides in the Fe(III) oxide-rich rind of spheroidal concretions collected from the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone (southwest United States), implicating a microbial role in Fe biomineralization. The amount of total organic carbon in the exterior Fe(III) oxides exceeded measured values in the friable interior. The mean δ 13C value of organic carbon from the Fe(III) oxide-cemented exterior, δ 13C of -20.55‰, is consistent with a biogenic signature from autotrophic bacteria. Scanning electron micrographs reveal microstructures consistent with bacterial size and morphology, including a twisted-stalk morphotype that resembled an Fe(II)-oxidizing microorganism, Gallionella sp. Nanoscale associations of Fe, O, C, and N with bacterial morphotypes demonstrate microorganisms associated with Fe(III) oxides. Together these results indicate that autotrophic microorganisms were present during Fe(III) oxide precipitation and present microbial catalysis as a mechanism of Fe(III) oxide concretion formation. Microbial biosignatures in rinded Fe(III) oxide-rich concretions within an exhumed, Quaternary aquifer has broad implications for detection of life within the geological record on Earth as well as other Fe-rich rocky planets such as Mars, where both Fe(II) carbonate and Fe(III) oxide-rich concretions have been identified.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)747-750
Number of pages4
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2012


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