Microbial diversity and biomarker analysis of modern freshwater microbialites from Laguna Bacalar, Mexico

D. B. Johnson, P. A. Beddows, T. M. Flynn, M. R. Osburn*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Laguna Bacalar is a sulfate-rich freshwater lake on the Yucatan Peninsula that hosts large microbialites. High sulfate concentrations distinguish Laguna Bacalar from other freshwater microbialite sites such as Pavilion Lake and Alchichica, Mexico, as well as from other aqueous features on the Yucatan Peninsula. While cyanobacterial populations have been described here previously, this study offers a more complete characterization of the microbial populations and corresponding biogeochemical cycling using a three-pronged geobiological approach of microscopy, high-throughput DNA sequencing, and lipid biomarker analyses. We identify and compare diverse microbial communities of Alphaproteobacteria, Deltaproteobacteria, and Gammaproteobacteria that vary with location along a bank-to-bank transect across the lake, within microbialites, and within a neighboring mangrove root agglomeration. In particular, sulfate-reducing bacteria are extremely common and diverse, constituting 7%–19% of phylogenetic diversity within the microbialites, and are hypothesized to significantly influence carbonate precipitation. In contrast, Cyanobacteria account for less than 1% of phylogenetic diversity. The distribution of lipid biomarkers reflects these changes in microbial ecology, providing meaningful biosignatures for the microbes in this system. Polysaturated short-chain fatty acids characteristic of cyanobacteria account for <3% of total abundance in Laguna Bacalar microbialites. By contrast, even short-chain and monounsaturated short-chain fatty acids attributable to both Cyanobacteria and many other organisms including types of Alphaproteobacteria and Gammaproteobacteria constitute 43%–69% and 17%–25%, respectively, of total abundance in microbialites. While cyanobacteria are the largest and most visible microbes within these microbialites and dominate the mangrove root agglomeration, it is clear that their smaller, metabolically diverse associates are responsible for significant biogeochemical cycling in this microbialite system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-337
Number of pages19
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2018


  • Laguna Bacalar
  • lipid biomarkers
  • microbialites
  • sulfate reducing bacteria

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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