Fossilized microorganisms associated with zeolite–carbonate interfaces in sub-seafloor hydrothermal environments


Corresponding author: Magnus Ivarsson. Tel.: + 46 8 164769; fax: + 46 8 674 7897; e-mail:


In this paper we describe carbon-rich filamentous structures observed in association with the zeolite mineral phillipsite from sub-seafloor samples drilled and collected during the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 197 at the Emperor Seamounts. The filamentous structures are ~5 µm thick and ~100–200 µm in length. They are found attached to phillipsite surfaces in veins and entombed in vein-filling carbonates. The carbon content of the filaments ranges between ~10 wt% C and 55 wt% C. They further bind to propidium iodide (PI), which is a dye that binds to damaged cell membranes and remnants of DNA.

Carbon-rich globular microstructures, 1–2 µm in diameter, are also found associated with the phillipsite surfaces as well as within wedge-shaped cavities in phillipsite assemblages. The globules have a carbon content that range between ~5 wt% C and 55 wt% C and they bind to PI. Ordinary globular iron oxides found throughout the samples differ in that they contain no carbon and do not bind to the dye PI. The carbon-rich globules are mostly concentrated to a film-like structure that is attached to the phillipsite surfaces. This film has a carbon content that ranges between ~25 wt% C and 75 wt% C and partially binds to PI. EDS analyses show that the carbon in all structures described are not associated with calcium and therefore not bound in carbonates. The carbon content and the binding to PI may indicate that the filamentous structures could represent fossilized filamentous microorganisms, the globules could represent fossilized microbial cells and the film-like structures could represent a microbially produced biofilm.

Our results extend the knowledge of possible habitable niches for a deep biosphere in sub-seafloor environments and suggests, as phillipsite is one of the most common zeolite mineral in volcanic rocks of the oceanic crust, that it could be a common feature in the oceanic crust elsewhere.