Hydrogen-isotopic variability in fatty acids from Yellowstone National Park hot spring microbial communities

Magdalena R. Osburn*, Alex L. Sessions, Charles Pepe-Ranney, John R. Spear

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


We report the abundances and hydrogen-isotopic compositions (D/H ratios) of fatty acids extracted from hot-spring microbial mats in Yellowstone National Park. The terrestrial hydrothermal environment provides a useful system for studying D/H fractionations because the numerous microbial communities in and around the springs are visually distinct, separable, and less complex than those in many other aquatic environments. D/H fractionations between lipids and water ranged from -374‰ to +41‰ and showed systematic variations between different types of microbial communities. Lipids produced by chemoautotrophic hyperthermophilic bacteria, such as icosenoic acid (20:1), generally exhibited the largest and most variable fractionations from water (-374‰ to -165‰). This was in contrast to lipids characteristic of heterotrophs, such as branched, odd chain-length fatty acids, which had the smallest fractionations (-163‰ to +41‰). Mats dominated by photoautotrophs exhibited intermediate fractionations similar in magnitude to those expressed by higher plants. These data support the hypothesis that variations in lipid D/H are strongly influenced by central metabolic pathways. Shifts in the isotopic compositions of individual fatty acids across known ecological boundaries show that the isotopic signature of specific metabolisms can be recognized in modern environmental samples, and potentially recorded in ancient ones. Considering all sampled springs, the total range in D/H ratios is similar to that observed in marine sediments, suggesting that the trends observed here are not exclusive to the hydrothermal environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4830-4845
Number of pages16
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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