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ABSTRACT

Gypsum crusts containing multicolored stratified microbial populations grow in the evaporation ponds of a commercial saltern in Eilat, Israel. These crusts contain two prominent cyanobacterial layers, a bright purple layer of anoxygenic phototrophs, and a lower black layer with active sulphate reduction. We explored the diel dynamics of oxygen and sulphide within the crust using specially constructed microelectrodes, and further explored the crust biogeochemistry by measuring rates of sulphate reduction, stable sulphur isotope composition, and oxygen exchange rates across the crust–brine interface. We explored crusts from ponds with two different salinities, and found that the crust in the highest salinity was the less active. Overall, these crusts exhibited much lower rates of oxygen production than typical organic-rich microbial mats. However, this was mainly due to much lower cell densities within the crusts. Surprisingly, on a per cell-volume basis, rates of photosynthesis were similar to organic-rich microbial mats. Due to relatively low rates of oxygen production and deep photic zones extending from 1.5 to 3 cm depth, a large percentage of the oxygen produced during the day accumulated into the crusts. Indeed, only between 16% to 34% of the O2 produced in the crust escaped, and the remainder was internally recycled, used mainly in O2 respiration. We view these crusts as potential homologs to ancient salt-encrusted microbial ecosystems, and we compared them to the 3.45 billion-year-old quartz barite deposits from North Pole, Australia, which originally precipitated gypsum.