Hot Spring Microbial Community Elemental Composition: Hot Spring and Soil Inputs, and the Transition from Biocumulus to Siliceous Sinter

Jeff R. Havig, Joshua E. Kuether, Andrew J. Gangidine, Sarah Schroeder, Trinity L. Hamilton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Hydrothermal systems host microbial communities that include some of the most deeply branching members of the tree of life, and recent work has suggested that terrestrial hot springs may have provided ideal conditions for the origin of life. Hydrothermal microbial communities are a potential source for biosignatures, and the presence of terrestrial hot spring deposits in 3.48 Ga rocks as well as on the surface of Mars lends weight to a need to better understand the preservation of biosignatures in these systems. Although there are general patterns of elemental enrichment in hydrothermal water dependent on physical and geochemical conditions, the elemental composition of bulk hydrothermal microbial communities (here termed biocumulus, including cellular biomass and accumulated non-cellular material) is largely unexplored. However, recent work has suggested both bulk and spatial trace element enrichment as a potential biosignature in hot spring deposits. To elucidate the elemental composition of hot spring biocumulus samples and explore the sources of those elements, we analyzed a suite of 16 elements in hot spring water samples and corresponding biocumulus from 60 hot springs sinter samples, and rock samples from 8 hydrothermal areas across Yellowstone National Park. We combined these data with values reported in literature to assess the patterns of elemental uptake into biocumulus and retention in associated siliceous sinter. Hot spring biocumuli are of biological origin, but organic carbon comprises a minor percentage of the total mass of both thermophilic chemotrophic and phototrophic biocumulus. Instead, the majority of hot spring biocumulus is inorganic material - largely silica - and the distribution of major and trace elements mimics that of surrounding rock and soil rather than the hot spring fluids. Analyses indicate a systematic loss of biologically associated elements during diagenetic transformation of biocumulus to siliceous sinter, suggesting a potential for silica sinter to preserve a trace element biosignature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1526-1546
Number of pages21
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
J.R.H. would like to acknowledge financial support from PSARC at Penn State, and the University of Minnesota. T.L.H. would like to acknowledge financial support from the University of Minnesota and NASA Exobiology award number 80NSSC20K0614.

Publisher Copyright:
© Jeff R. Havig et al., 2021; Published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 2021.


  • Biofilms
  • Biosignatures
  • Element uptake
  • Hot springs
  • Silica precipitation
  • Yellowstone

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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