Autotrophy of Green Non-Sulphur Bacteria in Hot Spring Microbial Mats: Biological Explanations for Isotopically Heavy Organic Carbon in the Geological Record

Environ Microbiol. 2000 Aug;2(4):428-35. doi: 10.1046/j.1462-2920.2000.00124.x.


Inferences about the evidence of life recorded in organic compounds within the Earth's ancient rocks have depended on 13C contents low enough to be characteristic of biological debris produced by the well-known CO2 fixation pathway, the Calvin cycle. 'Atypically' high values have been attributed to isotopic alteration of sedimentary organic carbon by thermal metamorphism. We examined the possibility that organic carbon characterized by a relatively high 13C content could have arisen biologically from recently discovered autotrophic pathways. We focused on the green non-sulphur bacterium Chloroflexus aurantiacus that uses the 3-hydroxypropionate pathway for inorganic carbon fixation and is geologically significant as it forms modern mat communities analogous to stromatolites. Organic matter in mats constructed by Chloroflexus spp. alone had relatively high 13C contents (-14.9%) and lipids diagnostic of Chloroflexus that were also isotopically heavy (-8.9% to -18.5%). Organic matter in mats constructed by Chloroflexus in conjunction with cyanobacteria had a more typical Calvin cycle signature (-23.5%). However, lipids diagnostic of Chloroflexus were isotopically enriched (-15.1% to -24.1%) relative to lipids typical of cyanobacteria (-33.9% to -36.3%). This suggests that, in mats formed by both cyanobacteria and Chloroflexus, autotrophy must have a greater effect on Chloroflexus carbon metabolism than the photoheterotrophic consumption of cyanobacterial photosynthate. Chloroflexus cell components were also selectively preserved. Hence, Chloroflexus autotrophy and selective preservation of its products constitute one purely biological mechanism by which isotopically heavy organic carbon could have been introduced into important Precambrian geological features.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biofilms / growth & development
  • Carbon Isotopes / metabolism*
  • Chlorobi / growth & development
  • Chlorobi / metabolism*
  • Chromatography, Gas / methods
  • Cyanobacteria / growth & development
  • Cyanobacteria / metabolism*
  • Fresh Water / microbiology*
  • Lipids / analysis
  • Organic Chemicals / metabolism*
  • Pigments, Biological / analysis


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Lipids
  • Organic Chemicals
  • Pigments, Biological