Analysis of the carbon isotopic composition of carbonates is a valuable tool for studying microbial processes and looking for evidence of life. Microbial fixation of CO2 and conversion of organic carbon to CO2 can produce measurable d13C shifts in a microbial mat environment. Diffusion modeling demonstrates that substantial isotopic shifts can develop within the mat and in the diffusion boundary layer in the fluid when CO2 fixation is rapid and prolonged for several hours. Carbonates that precipitate during rapid CO2 fixation can preserve these microbially produced isotopic shifts. However, continued precipitation during intervals when respiration dominates or after the cessation of active microbial growth commonly dilutes autotrophic isotopic signatures. Thus, preserved isotopic signatures rarely reflect the magnitude of isotopic shifts within the mat.
Interpretation of observed isotopic shifts in microbial mat carbonate depends on fully characterizing ambient d13C and eliminating other origins for isotopic shifts. The carbon isotopic composition of reservoirs can vary substantially, both on Earth and on other planets. Characterizing the reservoir composition and any changes through time is critical to evaluating microbially-induced shifts. In addition, careful evaluation of non-microbial causes for shifts in isotopic composition is essential for a reliable interpretation. Complicating processes include recrystallization, calcite precipitation over extended periods of time, variable precipitation rates and water chemistry, and mixing of carbonates having different isotopic signatures.
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Dawn Y. Sumner
Department of Geology
University of California
Davis, CA 95616