14C-Free Carbon Is a Major Contributor to Cellular Biomass in Geochemically Distinct Groundwater of Shallow Sedimentary Bedrock Aquifers.Water Resour Res 2019; 55(3):2104-2121WR
Despite the global significance of the subsurface biosphere, the degree to which it depends on surface organic carbon (OC) is still poorly understood. Here, we compare stable and radiogenic carbon isotope compositions of microbial phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) with those of in situ potential microbial C sources to assess the major C sources for subsurface microorganisms in biogeochemical distinct shallow aquifers (Critical Zone Exploratory, Thuringia Germany). Despite the presence of younger OC, the microbes assimilated 14C-free OC to varying degrees; ~31% in groundwater within the oxic zone, ~47% in an iron reduction zone, and ~70% in a sulfate reduction/anammox zone. The persistence of trace amounts of mature and partially biodegraded hydrocarbons suggested that autochthonous petroleum-derived hydrocarbons were a potential 14C-free C source for heterotrophs in the oxic zone. In this zone, Δ14C values of dissolved inorganic carbon (-366 ± 18‰) and 11MeC16:0 (-283 ± 32‰), an important component in autotrophic nitrite oxidizers, were similar enough to indicate that autotrophy is an important additional C fixation pathway. In anoxic zones, methane as an important C source was unlikely since the 13C-fractionations between the PLFAs and CH4 were inconsistent with kinetic isotope effects associated with methanotrophy. In the sulfate reduction/anammox zone, the strong 14C-depletion of 10MeC16:0 (-942 ± 22‰), a PLFA common in sulfate reducers, indicated that those bacteria were likely to play a critical part in 14C-free sedimentary OC cycling. Results indicated that the 14C-content of microbial biomass in shallow sedimentary aquifers results from complex interactions between abundance and bioavailability of naturally occurring OC, hydrogeology, and specific microbial metabolisms.