A study published today in Science by researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory may dramatically shift our understanding of the complex dance of microbes and minerals that takes place in aquifers deep underground. This dance affects groundwater quality, the fate of contaminants in the ground and the emerging science of carbon sequestration.
Deep underground, microbes don't have much access to oxygen. So they have evolved ways to breathe other elements, including solid minerals like iron and sulfur.
The part that interests scientists is that when the microbes breathe solid iron and sulfur, they transform them into highly reactive dissolved ions that are then much more likely to interact with other minerals and dissolved materials in the aquifer. This process can slowly but steadily make dramatic changes to the makeup of the rock, soil and water.
"That means that how these microbes breathe affects what happens to pollutantswhether they travel or stay putas well as groundwater quality," said Ted Flynn, a scientist from Argonne and the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study.
About a fifth of the world's population relies on groundwater from aquifers for their drinking water supply, and many more depend on the crops watered by aquifers.
For decades, scientists thought that when iron was present in these types of deep aquifers, microbes who can breathe it would out-compete those who cannot. There's an accepted hierarchy of what microbes prefer to breathe, according to how much energy each reaction can theoretically yield. (Oxygen is considered the best overall, but it is rarely found deep below the surface.)
According to these calculations, of the elements that do show up in these aquifers, breathing iron theoretically provides the most energy to microbes. And iron is frequently among the most abundant minerals in many aquifers, whi
|Contact: Brian Grabowski|
DOE/Argonne National Laboratory