A microbial role in the construction of Mono Lake carbonate chimneys?

Alexander Brasier*, David Wacey, Mike Rogerson, Paul Guagliardo, Martin Saunders, Siri Kellner, Ramon Mercedes-Martin, Tim Prior, Colin Taylor, Anna Matthews, John Reijmer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Lacustrine carbonate chimneys are striking, metre-scale constructions. If these were bioinfluenced constructions, they could be priority targets in the search for early and extraterrestrial microbial life. However, there are questions over whether such chimneys are built on a geobiological framework or are solely abiotic geomorphological features produced by mixing of lake and spring waters. Here, we use correlative microscopy to show that microbes were living around Pleistocene Mono Lake carbonate chimneys during their growth. A plausible interpretation, in line with some recent works by others on other lacustrine carbonates, is that benthic cyanobacteria and their associated extracellular organic material (EOM) formed tubular biofilms around rising sublacustrine spring vent waters, binding calcium ions and trapping and binding detrital silicate sediment. Decay of these biofilms would locally have increased calcium and carbonate ion activity, inducing calcite precipitation on and around the biofilms. Early manganese carbonate mineralisation was directly associated with cell walls, potentially related to microbial activity though the precise mechanism remains to be elucidated. Much of the calcite crystal growth was likely abiotic, and no strong evidence for either authigenic silicate growth or a clay mineral precursor framework was observed. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the biofilms provided initial sites for calcite nucleation and encouraged the primary organised crystal growth. We suggest that the nano-, micro- and macroscale fabrics of these Pleistocene Mono Lake chimneys were affected by the presence of centimetre-thick tubular and vertically stacked calcifying microbial mats. Such carbonate chimneys represent a promising macroscale target in the exploration for ancient or extraterrestrial life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)540-555
Number of pages16
Issue number5
Early online date9 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018


Fieldwork was undertaken and samples collected under permit from CA State Parks and with the kind support of Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve and the Mono Lake Committee. We acknowledge the facilities, scientific and technical assistance of the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility at the Centre for Microscopy Characterisation and Analysis, The University of Western Australia, a facility funded by the University, State and Commonwealth Governments. DW acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council via the Future Fellowship scheme (FT140100321). BP Exploration Co. (GPTLlBPXlMB/NB/89573) is thanked for funding provided to the Universities of Hull and VU Amsterdam. SK acknowledges funding from the DAAD RISE internship programme. Three anonymous reviewers provided very helpful

FundersFunder number
Australian Research CouncilGPTLlBPXlMB/NB/89573, FT140100321
Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst


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