Microbial mats have arguably been the most important ecosystem on Earth over its 3.5 Gyr inhabitation. Mats have persisted as consortia for billions of years and occupy some of Earth's most hostile environments. With rare exceptions (e.g. microbial mats developed on geothermal springs at Yellowstone National Park, USA), today's mats do not exist under conditions analogous to Precambrian habitats with substantially lower oxygen and sulphate concentrations. This study uses a numerical model of a microbial mat to investigate how mat composition in the past might have differed from modern mats.
We present a numerical model of mat biogeochemistry that simulates the growth of cyanobacteria (CYA), colourless sulphur bacteria (CSB), and purple sulphur bacteria (PSB), with sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) and heterotrophic bacteria represented by parameterized sulphate reduction rates and heterotrophic consumption rates, respectively. Variations in the availability of light, oxygen, sulphide, and sulphate at the upper boundary of the mat are the driving forces in the model. Mats with remarkably similar biomass and chemical profiles develop in models under oxygen boundary conditions ranging from 2.5 × 10−13 to 0.25 mm and sulphate boundary concentrations ranging from 0.29 to 29 mm, designed to simulate various environments from Archean to modern.
The modelled mats show little sensitivity to oxygen boundary conditions because, independent of the overlying oxygen concentrations, cyanobacterial photosynthesis creates similar O2 concentrations of 0.45–0.65 mm in the upper reaches of the mat during the photoperiod. Varying sulphate boundary conditions have more effect on the biological composition of the mat. Sulphide generated from sulphate reduction controls the magnitude and distribution of the PSB population, and plays a part in the distribution of CSB. CSB are the most sensitive species to environmental change, varying with oxygen and sulphide.