• Bacterial fossils;
  • carbonates;
  • cell surface;
  • dolomite;
  • fossilization;
  • zetapotential

ABSTRACT Recent dolomitic sediment samples from Lagoa Vermelha, Brazil, were examined microscopically to study the process of bacterial fossilization in carbonate sediments. Bacteria-like bodies were intimately associated with carbonate mineral surfaces, and coatings on the former demonstrate the calcification of single bacterial cells. The bacterial fossilization process in Lagoa Vermelha sediments was simulated in the laboratory by cultivation of mixed and pure cultures of sulphate-reducing bacteria, which were isolated from the Lagoa Vermelha sediments. These cultures produced carbonate minerals that were studied to provide insight into the initiation of the fossilization process. In mixed culture experiments, bacterial colonies became calcified, whereas in pure culture experiments, single bacterial cells were associated with dolomite surfaces. Dolomite nucleated exclusively in bacterial colonies, intimately associated with extracellular organic matter and bacterial cells. Electrophoretic mobility measurements of the bacterial cells in electrolyte solutions demonstrated the specific adsorption of Ca2+ and Mg2+ onto the cell surfaces, indicating the role of the bacterial surface in carbonate nucleation and bacterial fossilization. The affinity of the cells for Mg2+ was related to the capability of the strains to mediate dolomite formation. Combined with sulphate uptake, which dissociates the [MgSO4]0 ion pair and increases the Mg2+ availability, the concentration of Mg2+ ions in the microenvironment around the cells, where the conditions are favourable for dolomite precipitation, may be the key to overcome the kinetic barrier to dolomite formation. These results demonstrate that bacterial fossilization is a consequence of the cell surface involvement in carbonate precipitation, implying that fossilized bacterial bodies can be used as a tool to recognize microbially mediated carbonates.