An infrared study of modern and paleo-filamentous bacteria from Rio Tinto, Spain

Preston, L. J.; Shuster, J.; Fernandez-Remolar, D.; Banerjee, N. R.; Osinski, G. R. and Southam, G. (2010). An infrared study of modern and paleo-filamentous bacteria from Rio Tinto, Spain. In: Goldschmidt Conference 2010, 13-18 Jun 2010, Knoxville, Tennessee.



The Rio Tinto River Basin in southwestern Spain is a natural acidic (pH ~2.3) drainage system that supports a diversity of acid tolerant bacteria and eukaryotes with iron and sulfur- oxidizing prokaryotes performing chemolithotrophy and supporting anaerobic respiration [1, 2]. River terrace deposits formed over the past 2 Myr have preserved remnants of this unique biosphere, particularly microbial filaments, which provide templates for iron sulphate and iron oxide precipitation [1, 2]. This process of permineralization causes organic material to become trapped within a mineral matrix and preserved over geological time.

This study analysed cultured filamentous bacteria, modern biofilms and sediments, and river terrace deposits spanning 2.1 Myr to assess the preservation of organics in this extreme environment over time, and the ability to correlate them with a contemporary culture.

Filamentous bacteria are preserved within optically translucent nanophase to crystalline jarosite and goethite within all samples. The cultures contained 1 μm diameter filaments, some partially encrusted with iron oxides with visible cell walls, and others completely free of iron oxides, that are morphologically comparable to those preserved in the Rio Tinto rock record. Organic compounds (e.g. aliphatic hydrocarbons, amides and carboxylic acids) were detected at various levels within the culture and river terraces using mid-IR spectroscopy.

Rio Tinto is a natural laboratory allowing living cells to be studied and correlated to morphological and biomolecular fossils in the geological record. These deposits will provide predictive tools for biomarker studies that may be extended to analogous environments on ancient Earth or even Mars.

[1] Fernández-Remolar et al. (2005) Earth Planet Sci Lett 240,149-167.
[2] Fernández-Remolar & Knoll (2008) Icarus 194,72-85.

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