Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”


This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1256211

James Farquhar home page


Alan J. Kaufman home page


Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page


Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

The breathing sand

An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. -  Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR
An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. – Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR

A desert at the bottom of the sea? Although the waters of the North Sea exchange about every two to three years, there is evidence of decreasing oxygen content. If lower amounts of this gas are dissolved in seawater, organisms on and in the seabed produce less energy – with implications for larger creatures and the biogeochemical cycling in the marine ecosystem. Since nutrients, carbon and oxygen circulate very well and are processed quickly in the permeable, sandy sediments that make up two-thirds of the North Sea, measurements of metabolic rates are especially difficult here. Using the new Aquatic Eddy Correlation technique, scientists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Koblenz-Landau, the Scottish Marine Institute and Aarhus University were able to demonstrate how oxygen flows at the ground of the North Sea. Their methods and results are presented in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

“The so-called ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique detects the flow of oxygen through these small turbulences over an area of several square meters. It considers both the mixing of sediments by organisms living in it and the hydrodynamics of the water above the rough sea floor”, Dr. Peter Linke, a marine biologist at GEOMAR, explains. “Previous methods overlooked only short periods or disregarded important parameters. Now we can create a more realistic picture.” The new method also takes into account the fact that even small objects such as shells or ripples shaped by wave action or currents are able to impact the oxygen exchange in permeable sediments.

On the expedition CE0913 with the Irish research vessel CELTIC EXPLORER, scientists used the underwater robot ROV KIEL 6000 to place three different instruments within the “Tommeliten” area belonging to Norway: Two “Eddy Correlation Landers” recorded the strength of oxygen fluxes over three tidal cycles. Information about the distribution of oxygen in the sediment was collected with a “Profiler Lander”, a seafloor observatory with oxygen sensors and flow meters. A “Benthic chamber” isolated 314 square centimetres of sediment and took samples from the overlying water over a period of 24 hours to determine the oxygen consumption of the sediment.

“The combination of traditional tools with the ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique has given us new insights into the dynamics of the exchange of substances between the sea water and the underlying sediment. A variety of factors determine the timing and amount of oxygen available. Currents that provide the sandy sediment with oxygen, but also the small-scale morphology of the seafloor, ensure that small benthic organisms are able to process carbon or other nutrients. The dependencies are so complex that they can be decrypted only by using special methods”, Dr. Linke summarizes. Therefore, detailed measurements in the water column and at the boundary to the seafloor as well as model calculations are absolutely necessary to understand basic functions and better estimate future changes in the cycle of materials. “With conventional methods, for example, we would never have been able to find that the loose sandy sediment stores oxygen brought in by the currents for periods of less water movement and less oxygen introduction.”

Original publication:
McGinnis, D. F., S. Sommer, A. Lorke, R. N. Glud, P. Linke (2014): Quantifying tidally driven benthic oxygen exchange across permeable sediments: An aquatic eddy correlation study. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, doi:10.1002/2014JC010303.


GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

Eddy correlation information page

Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB

University of Southern Denmark

University of Koblenz-Landau

Scottish Marine Institute

Aarhus University

High resolution images can be downloaded at http://www.geomar.de/n2110-e.

Video footage is available on request.

Dr. Peter Linke (GEOMAR FB2-MG), Tel. 0431 600-2115, plinke@geomar.de

Maike Nicolai (GEOMAR, Kommunikation & Medien), Tel. 0431 600-2807, mnicolai@geomar.de

Icebergs once drifted to Florida, new climate model suggests

This is a map showing the pathway taken by icebergs from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Florida. The blue colors (behind the arrows) are an actual snapshot from the authors' high resolution model showing how much less salty the water is than normal. The more blue the color the less salty it is than normal. In this case, blue all the way along the coast shows that very fresh, cold waters are flowing along the entire east coast from Hudson Bay to Florida. -  UMass Amherst
This is a map showing the pathway taken by icebergs from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Florida. The blue colors (behind the arrows) are an actual snapshot from the authors’ high resolution model showing how much less salty the water is than normal. The more blue the color the less salty it is than normal. In this case, blue all the way along the coast shows that very fresh, cold waters are flowing along the entire east coast from Hudson Bay to Florida. – UMass Amherst

Using a first-of-its-kind, high-resolution numerical model to describe ocean circulation during the last ice age about 21,000 year ago, oceanographer Alan Condron of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has shown that icebergs and meltwater from the North American ice sheet would have regularly reached South Carolina and even southern Florida. The models are supported by the discovery of iceberg scour marks on the sea floor along the entire continental shelf.

Such a view of past meltwater and iceberg movement implies that the mechanisms of abrupt climate change are more complex than previously thought, Condron says. “Our study is the first to show that when the large ice sheet over North America known as the Laurentide ice sheet began to melt, icebergs calved into the sea around Hudson Bay and would have periodically drifted along the east coast of the United States as far south as Miami and the Bahamas in the Caribbean, a distance of more than 3,100 miles, about 5,000 kilometers.”

His work, conducted with Jenna Hill of Coastal Carolina University, is described in the current advance online issue of Nature Geosciences. “Determining how far south of the subpolar gyre icebergs and meltwater penetrated is vital for understanding the sensitivity of North Atlantic Deep Water formation and climate to past changes in high-latitude freshwater runoff,” the authors say.

Hill analyzed high-resolution images of the sea floor from Cape Hatteras to Florida and identified about 400 scour marks on the seabed that were formed by enormous icebergs plowing through mud on the sea floor. These characteristic grooves and pits were formed as icebergs moved into shallower water and their keels bumped and scraped along the ocean floor.

“The depth of the scours tells us that icebergs drifting to southern Florida were at least 1,000 feet, or 300 meters thick,” says Condron. “This is enormous. Such icebergs are only found off the coast of Greenland today.”

To investigate how icebergs might have drifted as far south as Florida, Condron simulated the release of a series of glacial meltwater floods in his high-resolution ocean circulation model at four different levels for two locations, Hudson Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Condron reports, “In order for icebergs to drift to Florida, our glacial ocean circulation model tells us that enormous volumes of meltwater, similar to a catastrophic glacial lake outburst flood, must have been discharging into the ocean from the Laurentide ice sheet, from either Hudson Bay or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Further, during these large meltwater flood events, the surface ocean current off the coast of Florida would have undergone a complete, 180-degree flip in direction, so that the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream would have been replaced by a cold, southward flowing current, he adds.

As a result, waters off the coast of Florida would have been only a few degrees above freezing. Such events would have led to the sudden appearance of massive icebergs along the east coast of the United States all the way to Florida Keys, Condron points out. These events would have been abrupt and short-lived, probably less than a year, he notes.

“This new research shows that much of the meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet may be redistributed by narrow coastal currents and circulate through subtropical regions prior to reaching the subpolar ocean. It’s a more complicated picture than we believed before,” Condron says. He and Hill say that future research on mechanisms of abrupt climate change should take into account coastal boundary currents in redistributing ice sheet runoff and subpolar fresh water.

Liquefaction of seabed no longer a mystery

<IMG SRC="/Images/483586609.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="222" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a pipeline floatation accident. Taken from the paper by J.S. Damgaard, B.M. Sumer, T.C. Teh, A.C. Palmer, P. Foray and D. Osorio: 'Guidelines for pipeline on-bottom stability on liquefied noncohesive seabeds' Journal of Waterway, Port, Coastal and Ocean Engineering, ASCE, vol. 132, No. 4, pp. 300-309, 2006. With permission from ASCE. – Journal of Waterway, Port, Coastal and Ocean Engineering, ASCE, vol. 132, No. 4, pp. 300-309, 2006. With permission from ASCE.”>
This is a pipeline floatation accident. Taken from the paper by J.S. Damgaard, B.M. Sumer, T.C. Teh, A.C. Palmer, P. Foray and D. Osorio: ‘Guidelines for pipeline on-bottom stability on liquefied noncohesive seabeds’ Journal of Waterway, Port, Coastal and Ocean Engineering, ASCE, vol. 132, No. 4, pp. 300-309, 2006. With permission from ASCE. – Journal of Waterway, Port, Coastal and Ocean Engineering, ASCE, vol. 132, No. 4, pp. 300-309, 2006. With permission from ASCE.

Seabed under large waves during storms may undergo liquefaction, a process in which the seabed sediment becomes liquid. Under this condition, sections of buried pipelines float to the surface of the seabed, heavy marine objects on the seabed such as breakwaters, caissons, sea mines, and pipelines sink and disappear into the seabed. How can this be explained?

Authored by renowned researcher and engineer Dr Mutlu Sumer and published by World Scientific, “Liquefaction Around Marine Structures”, features physics of liquefaction induced by large waves, mathematical modelling, floatation and sinking of marine objects in liquefied sediments. Although the main focus is the wave-induced liquefaction, it also discusses the seabed liquefaction caused by earthquakes. The book also addresses the issue of design of structures (against liquefaction) wherever it deems necessary, and provides guidelines via illustrated examples. Counter measures against seabed liquefaction is also discussed.

Many incidents with catastrophic consequences have occurred in the past due to wave-induced liquefaction of the seabed. There are also failures for which information never entered the public domain. Cost of such incidents is enormous, up to tens or even hundreds of million dollars.

The main cause of such incidents has been the fact that the structures (be it, for example, marine pipelines, or breakwaters, or caisson structures, or sea mines) have not been properly designed against liquefaction, and that has been due to the lack of knowledge, and the non-existence of guidelines for the design.

The present book essentially bridges this gap, for the first time, by collecting the state-of-the-art knowledge and building content, essentially based on the recent research conducted in the past two decades including two European research programs Liquefaction Around Marine Structures (LIMAS) and Scour Around Coastal Structures (SCARCOST) where the author was the Program Leader. The present book and the existing body of literature on earthquake-induced liquefaction (with special reference to marine structures) form a complementary source of information on liquefaction around marine structures, and will be used by consulting firms in the design of structures to ensure that incidents that occurred in the past with catastrophic dimensions can be avoided.

Dr. Mutlu Sumer is a Professor at the Technical University of Denmark, DTU Mekanik, Section for Fluid Mechanics, Coastal and Maritime Engineering. He has published two previous books with World Scientific, “Hydrodynamics Around Cylindrical Structures” and “The Mechanics of Scour in the Marine Environment”.

How productive are the ore factories in the deep sea?

About ten years after the first moon landing, scientists on earth made a discovery that proved that our home planet still holds a lot of surprises in store for us. Looking through the portholes of the submersible ALVIN near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in 1979, American scientists saw for the first time chimneys, several meters tall, from which black water at about 300 degrees and saturated with minerals shot out. What we have found out since then: These “black smokers”, also called hydrothermal vents, exist in all oceans. They occur along the boundaries of tectonic plates along the submarine volcanic chains. However, to date many details of these systems remain unexplained.

One question that has long and intensively been discussed in research is: Where and how deep does seawater penetrate into the seafloor to take up heat and minerals before it leaves the ocean floor at hydrothermal vents? This is of enormous importance for both, the cooling of the underwater volcanoes as well as for the amount of materials dissolved. Using a complex 3-D computer model, scientists at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were now able to understand the paths of the water toward the black smokers. The study appears in the current issue of the world-renowned scientific journal “Nature“.

In general, it is well known that seawater penetrates into the Earth’s interior through cracks and crevices along the plate boundaries. The seawater is heated by the magma; the hot water rises again, leaches metals and other elements from the ground and is released as a black colored solution. “However, in detail it is somewhat unclear whether the water enters the ocean floor in the immediate vicinity of the vents and flows upward immediately, or whether it travels long distances underground before venting,” explains Dr. Jörg Hasenclever from GEOMAR.

This question is not only important for the fundamental understanding of processes on our planet. It also has very practical implications. Some of the materials leached from the underground are deposited on the seabed and form ore deposits that may be of economically interest. There is a major debate, however, how large the resource potential of these deposits might be. “When we know which paths the water travels underground, we can better estimate the quantities of materials released by black smokers over thousands of years,” says Hasenclever.

Hasenclever and his colleagues have used for the first time a high-resolution computer model of the seafloor to simulate a six kilometer long and deep, and 16 kilometer wide section of a mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific. Among the data used by the model was the heat distribution in the oceanic crust, which is known from seismic studies. In addition, the model also considered the permeability of the rock and the special physical properties of water.

The simulation required several weeks of computing time. The result: “There are actually two different flow paths – about half the water seeps in near the vents, where the ground is very warm. The other half seeps in at greater distances and migrates for kilometers through the seafloor before exiting years later.” Thus, the current study partially confirmed results from a computer model, which were published in 2008 in the scientific journal “Science”. “However, the colleagues back then were able to simulate only a much smaller region of the ocean floor and therefore identified only the short paths near the black smokers,” says Hasenclever.

The current study is based on fundamental work on the modeling of the seafloor, which was conducted in the group of Professor Lars Rüpke within the framework of the Kiel Cluster of Excellence “The Future Ocean”. It provides scientists worldwide with the basis for further investigations to see how much ore is actually on and in the seabed, and whether or not deep-sea mining on a large scale could ever become worthwhile. “So far, we only know the surface of the ore deposits at hydrothermal vents. Nobody knows exactly how much metal is really deposited there. All the discussions about the pros and cons of deep-sea ore mining are based on a very thin database,” says co-author Prof. Dr. Colin Devey from GEOMAR. “We need to collect a lot more data on hydrothermal systems before we can make reliable statements”.

Oceanographers develop method for measuring the pace of life in deep sediments

Life deep in the seabed proceeds very slowly. But the slow-growing bacteria living many meters beneath the seafloor play an important role in the global storage of organic carbon and have a long-term effect on climate.
A team of scientists from Aarhus University (Denmark) and the University of Rhode Island have developed a new method for measuring this slow life deep down in the seabed.

Their findings were published last week in the journal Nature.

According to URI Oceanography Professor Arthur Spivack, the relative abundance of amino acids that are mirror images of each other in subseafloor sediment reflects the activity of microorganisms. The research team used this signature to calculate how active microorganisms are in the deepest layers of the seabed.

The deep seafloor samples were collected during an international drilling program led by the URI and Danish researchers. Advanced laboratory techniques were used to obtain the data. The researchers found that the metabolism of organic carbon takes place at a much slower rate in the deep seabed compared with all other known ecosystems.

“This study goes far beyond previous studies by showing that microbes in subseafloor sediment replace their biomass thousands of times more slowly than microbes in the surface world,” said URI Oceanography Professor Steven D’Hondt. The mean generation time of bacterial cells in the sediment is correspondingly long – 1,000 to 3,000 years. In comparison, the bacteria that have previously been studied in the laboratory or in nature typically reproduce in a number of hours.

“Seventy percent of our planet is covered by ocean, which means that seventy percent of the planet is made up of seabed consisting of sediment that stores old organic matter,” said Aarhus University Associate Professor Bente Lomstein. “In some places the deposits are more than one hundred meters thick. Several percent of the total living biomass on Earth is actually found in the mud in the seabed. The bacteria in the seabed convert the carbon of organic matter to CO2, and if we add it all up, the metabolism down there plays a crucial role in the global carbon cycle, even if it happens very slowly.”

One reason for the slow pace of life in the seabed is the challenging environment the bacteria lives in.

“Extremely high pressure, total darkness and very little nutrition – those are the conditions under which microorganisms live in the seabed,” added Alice Thoft Langerhuus, another Aarhus University researcher. “At the bottom of the deep ocean, the pressure reaches several hundred atmospheres.”

The research team has also showed how many of the bacteria survive under such extreme conditions. The scientists succeeded for the first time in demonstrating that there are just as many dormant cells as there are active ones. The dormant bacteria have formed endospores, which have a solid shell to protect themselves against the harsh environment.

The researchers said that their new method for calculating the pace of life in the seabed can also be used to measure the pace of life in other ancient environments with extremely low biological activity, like permafrost soils.