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Geobiology. 2014 Jan;12(1):83-98. doi: 10.1111/gbi.12070. Epub 2013 Nov 29.

An analysis of geothermal and carbonic springs in the western United States sustained by deep fluid inputs.

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Department of Biology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA.


Hydrothermal springs harbor unique microbial communities that have provided insight into the early evolution of life, expanded known microbial diversity, and documented a deep Earth biosphere. Mesothermal (cool but above ambient temperature) continental springs, however, have largely been ignored although they may also harbor unique populations of micro-organisms influenced by deep subsurface fluid mixing with near surface fluids. We investigated the microbial communities of 28 mesothermal springs in diverse geologic provinces of the western United States that demonstrate differential mixing of deeply and shallowly circulated water. Culture-independent analysis of the communities yielded 1966 bacterial and 283 archaeal 16S rRNA gene sequences. The springs harbored diverse taxa and shared few operational taxonomic units (OTUs) across sites. The Proteobacteria phylum accounted for most of the dataset (81.2% of all 16S rRNA genes), with 31 other phyla/candidate divisions comprising the remainder. A small percentage (~6%) of bacterial 16S rRNA genes could not be classified at the phylum level, but were mostly distributed in those springs with greatest inputs of deeply sourced fluids. Archaeal diversity was limited to only four springs and was primarily composed of well-characterized Thaumarchaeota. Geochemistry across the dataset was varied, but statistical analyses suggested that greater input of deeply sourced fluids was correlated with community structure. Those with lesser input contained genera typical of surficial waters, while some of the springs with greater input may contain putatively chemolithotrophic communities. The results reported here expand our understanding of microbial diversity of continental geothermal systems and suggest that these communities are influenced by the geochemical and hydrologic characteristics arising from deeply sourced (mantle-derived) fluid mixing. The springs and communities we report here provide evidence for opportunities to understand new dimensions of continental geobiological processes where warm, highly reduced fluids are mixing with more oxidized surficial waters.

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