Research Article

14C-Dead Living Biomass: Evidence for Microbial Assimilation of Ancient Organic Carbon During Shale Weathering

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Science  11 May 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5519, pp. 1127-1131
DOI: 10.1126/science.1058332

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Prokaryotes have been cultured from a modern weathering profile developed on a ∼365-million-year-old black shale that use macromolecular shale organic matter as their sole organic carbon source. Using natural-abundance carbon-14 analysis of membrane lipids, we show that 74 to 94% of lipid carbon in these cultures derives from assimilation of carbon-14–free organic carbon from the shale. These results reveal that microorganisms enriched from shale weathering profiles are able to use a macromolecular and putatively refractory pool of ancient organic matter. This activity may facilitate the oxidation of sedimentary organic matter to inorganic carbon when sedimentary rocks are exposed by erosion. Thus, microorganisms may play a more active role in the geochemical carbon cycle than previously recognized, with profound implications for controls on the abundance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere over geologic time.

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