Nonequilibrium clumped isotope signals in microbial methane

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Science  24 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6233, pp. 428-431
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa4326

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What controls clumped isotopes?

Stable isotopes of a molecule can clump together in several combinations, depending on their mass. Even for simple molecules such as O2, which can contain 16O, 17O, and 18O in various combinations, clumped isotopes can potentially reveal the temperatures at which molecules form. Away from equilibrium, however, the pattern of clumped isotopes may reflect a complex array of processes. Using high-resolution gas-phase mass spectrometry, Yeung et al. found that biological factors influence the clumped isotope signature of oxygen produced during photosynthesis (see the Perspective by Passey). Similarly, Wang et al. showed that away from equilibrium, kinetic effects causing isotope clumping can lead to overestimation of the temperature at which microbially produced methane forms.

Science, this issue p. 431; p. 428; see also p. 394


Methane is a key component in the global carbon cycle, with a wide range of anthropogenic and natural sources. Although isotopic compositions of methane have traditionally aided source identification, the abundance of its multiply substituted “clumped” isotopologues (for example, 13CH3D) has recently emerged as a proxy for determining methane-formation temperatures. However, the effect of biological processes on methane’s clumped isotopologue signature is poorly constrained. We show that methanogenesis proceeding at relatively high rates in cattle, surface environments, and laboratory cultures exerts kinetic control on 13CH3D abundances and results in anomalously elevated formation-temperature estimates. We demonstrate quantitatively that H2 availability accounts for this effect. Clumped methane thermometry can therefore provide constraints on the generation of methane in diverse settings, including continental serpentinization sites and ancient, deep groundwaters.

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