Extraordinary 13C enrichment of diether lipids at the Lost City Hydrothermal Field indicates a carbon-limited ecosystem

Alexander S. Bradley*, John M. Hayes, Roger E. Summons

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    94 Citations (Scopus)


    Active and inactive carbonate chimneys from the Lost City Hydrothermal Field contain up to 0.6% organic carbon with diverse lipid assemblages. The δ13C values of total organic carbon range from -21.5‰ vs. VPDB at an extinct carbonate chimney to -2.8‰ at a 70 °C, actively venting carbonate chimney. Samples collected at locations with total organic carbon with δ13C > -15‰ also contained high abundances of isoprenoidal and nonisoprenoidal diether lipids. Samples with TOC more depleted in 13C lacked or contained lower amounts of these diethers. Isoprenoidal diethers, including sn-2 hydroxyarchaeol, sn-3 hydroxyarchaeol, and putative dihydroxyarchaeol, are likely to derive from methanogenic archaea. These compounds have δ13C values ranging from -2.9 to +6.7‰ vs. VPDB. Nonisoprenoidal diethers and monoethers are presumably derived from bacteria, and have structures similar to those produced by sulfate-reducing bacteria in culture and at cold seeps. In samples that also contained abundant hydroxyarchaeols, these diethers have δ13C values between -11.8 and +3.6‰. In samples without abundant hydroxyarchaeols, the nonisoprenoidal diethers were typically more depleted in 13C, with δ13C as low as -28.7‰ in chimneys and -45‰ in fissures. The diethers at Lost City are probably derived from hydrogen-consuming methanogens and bacteria. High hydrogen concentrations favor methanogenesis over methanotrophy and allow the concurrent growth of methanogens and sulfate-reducing bacteria. The unusual enrichment of 13C in lipids can be attributed to nearly complete consumption of bioavailable carbon in vent fluids. Under carbon-limited conditions, the isotope effects that usually lead to 13C-depletion in organic material cannot be expressed. Consequently, metabolic products such as lipids and methane have δ13C values typical of abiotic carbon.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)102-118
    Number of pages17
    JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2009


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