Stable Carbon Isotope Depletions in Lipid Biomarkers Suggest Subsurface Carbon Fixation in Lava Caves

Matthew J. Selensky, Andrew L. Masterson, Jennifer G. Blank, Sohyun C. Lee, Magdalena R. Osburn*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Lava caves, formed through basaltic volcanism, are accessible conduits into the shallow subsurface and the microbial life residing there. While evidence for this life is widespread, the level of dependence of these microbial communities on surface inputs, especially that of organic carbon (OC), is a persistent knowledge gap, with relevance to both terrestrial biogeochemistry and the characterization of lava caves as Mars analog environments. Here, we explore carbon cycling processes within lava caves at Lava Beds National Monument, CA. We interrogate a range of cave features and surface soils, characterizing the isotopic composition (δ13C) of bulk organic and inorganic phases, followed by organic geochemical analysis of the distribution and δ13C signatures of fatty acids derived from intact polar lipids (IPLs). From these data, we estimate the carbon sources of different sample types, finding that surface soils and mineral-rich speleothems incorporate plant-derived biomass (δ13CVPDB ∼ −30‰), whereas biofilms are dominated by strongly 13C-depleted lipids (minimum δ13CVPDB −45.4‰) specific to bacteria, requiring a significant proportion of their biomass to derive from in situ fixation of inorganic carbon from previously respired OC. Based on the prevalence and abundance of these 13C-depleted lipids, we conclude that biofilms here are fueled by in situ chemolithoautotrophy, despite relatively high concentrations of dissolved OC in colocated cave waters. This unexpected metabolic potential mirrors that found in other deep subsurface biospheres and has significant positive implications for the potential microbial habitability of the Martian subsurface.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021JG006430
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • biofilms
  • carbon cycling
  • cave biospheres
  • compound-specific fatty acid isotopes
  • stable carbon isotopes
  • subsurface

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Forestry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Palaeontology
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology


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