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Abstract

Thrombolites are unlaminated carbonate build-ups that are formed via the metabolic activities of complex microbial mat communities. The thrombolitic mats of Highborne Cay, Bahamas develop in close proximity (1–2 m) to accreting laminated stromatolites, providing an ideal opportunity for biogeochemical and molecular comparisons of these two distinctive microbialite ecosystems. In this study, we provide the first comprehensive characterization of the biogeochemical activities and microbial diversity of the Highborne Cay thrombolitic mats. Morphological and molecular analyses reveal two dominant mat types associated with the thrombolite deposits, both of which are dominated by bacteria from the taxa Cyanobacteria and Alphaproteobacteria. Diel cycling of dissolved oxygen (DO) and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) were measured in all thrombolitic mat types. DO production varied between thrombolitic types and one morphotype, referred to in this study as ‘button mats’, produced the highest levels among all mat types, including the adjacent stromatolites. Characterization of thrombolite bacterial communities revealed a high bacterial diversity, roughly equivalent to that of the nearby stromatolites, and a low eukaryotic diversity. Extensive phylogenetic overlap between thrombolitic and stromatolitic microbial communities was observed, although thrombolite-specific cyanobacterial populations were detected. In particular, the button mats were dominated by a calcified, filamentous cyanobacterium identified via morphology and 16S rRNA gene sequencing as Dichothrix sp. The distinctive microbial communities and chemical cycling patterns within the thrombolitic mats provide novel insight into the biogeochemical processes related to the lithifying mats in this system, and provide data relevant to understanding microbially induced carbonate biomineralization.