Microbial Lipid Biomarkers Detected in Deep Subsurface Black Shales


Rawlings N. Akondi, Shikha Sharma, Ryan V. Trexler, Paula J. Mouser, Susan M. Pfiffner


Evidence for microbes has been detected in extreme subsurface environments as deep as 2.5 km with temperatures as high as 90 °C, demonstrating that microbes can adapt and survive extreme environmental conditions. Deep subsurface shales are increasingly exploited for their energy applications, thus characterizing the prevalence and role of microbes in these ecosystems essential for understanding biogeochemical cycles and maximizing production from hydrocarbon-bearing formations. Here, we describe the distribution of bacterial ester-linked phospholipid fatty acids (PLFA) and diglyceride fatty acids (DGFA) in sidewall cores retrieved from three distinct geologic horizons collected to 2275 m below ground surface in a Marcellus Shale well, West Virginia, USA. We examined the abundance and variety of PLFA and DGFA prior to energy development within and above the Marcellus Shale Formation into the overlying Mahantango Formation of the Appalachian Basin. Lipid biomarkers in the cores suggest the presence of microbial communities comprising Gram (+), Gram (−) as well as stress indicative biomarkers. Microbial PLFA and DGFA degradation in the subsurface can be influenced by stressful environmental conditions associated with the subsurface. The PLFA concentration and variety were higher in the transition zone between the extremely low permeability Marcellus Shale Formation and the more permeable Mahantango Formation. In contrast to this distribution, more abundant and diverse DGFA membrane profiles were associated with the Mahantango Formation. The stress indicative biomarkers like the trans-membrane fatty acids, oxiranes, keto-, and dimethyl lipid fatty acids were present in all cores, potentially indicating that the bacterial communities had experienced physiological stress or nutrient deprivation during or after deposition. The DGFA profiles expressed more stress indicative biomarkers as opposed to the PLFA membrane profiles. These findings suggest the probable presence of indigenous microbial communities in the deep subsurface shale and also improves our understanding of microbial survival mechanisms in ancient deep subsurface environments.

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Akondi RN, Sharma S, Trexler RV, Mouser PJ, Pfiffner SM. 2019. Microbial lipid biomarkers detected in deep subsurface black shales. Environmental Science-Processes & Impacts 21:291-307.