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Abstract

Mineral precipitation in microbial mats may have been the key to their preservation as fossil stromatolites, potentially documenting evidence of the earliest life on Earth. Two factors that contribute to carbonate mineral precipitation are the saturation index (SI) and the presence of nucleation sites. Both of these can be influenced by micro-organisms, which can either alter SI through their metabolisms, or produce and consume organic substances such as extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) that can affect nucleation. It is the balance of individual metabolisms within the mat community that determines the pH and the dissolved inorganic carbon concentration, thereby potentially increasing the alkalinity and consequently the SI. Sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) are an important component of this ‘alkalinity engine.’ The activity of SRB often peaks in layers where CaCO3 precipitates, and mineral precipitation has been demonstrated in SRB cultures; however, the effect of their metabolism on the alkalinity engine and actual contribution to mineral precipitation is the subject of controversy. Here, we show through culture experiments, theoretical calculations, and geochemical modeling studies that the pH, alkalinity, and organomineralization potential will vary depending on the type of electron donor. Specifically, hydrogen and formate can increase the pH, but electron donors like lactate and ethanol, and to a lesser extent glycolate, decrease the pH. The implication of this for the lithification of mats is that the combination of processes supplying electron donors and the utilization of these compounds by SRB may be critical to promoting mineral precipitation.