Fossil bacterial ecosystem at methane seeps: Origin of organic matter from Be'eri sulfur deposit, Israel

R. Y.P. Burhan, J. M. Trendel, P. Adam, P. Wehrung, P. Albrecht*, A. Nissenbaum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Citations (Scopus)


The Be'eri sulfur mine (Israel) is a unique deposit mainly composed of sandstone intercalated with biogenic mats and possessing organic matter exceptionally depleted in 13C. Molecular and isotopic studies of free and bound biomarkers were performed to unravel the source of the organic matter co-occurring with sulfur in this deposit and to propose a paleoenvironmental model of bacterial life in a type of extreme environment. They showed that the biomarkers are all extremely 13C-depleted and almost exclusively composed of hopanoids and biphytane derivatives of bacterial origin, notably methanotrophic bacteria and acidophilic archaea. δ13C values of individual components and of bulk organic carbon are in the -80% to -90% range and are among the lowest values ever measured for hopanoids. Organic matter in the sandstone and the mats differ mainly by the occurrence of 3-methylated hopanoids in the mats, which may reflect either different bacterial populations or different conditions of growth. These data demonstrate that the complete biomass of this deposit primarily derives from methanotrophic hopanoid-synthesizing bacteria consuming methane having seeped toward the surface, and that all other organism-apparently only archaea and bacteria-must have been thriving on methane-derived carbon (methane, CO2 , biomass of methanotrophic bacteria). Unambiguous evidence for photosynthetic organisms in the environment of deposition could not be found. The Be'eri sulfur deposit is thus a fossil remain of an exclusively bacterial ecosystem fueled by methane as sole carbon source and having developed in an interstitial aqueous medium within the sandstone. Elemental sulfur from the deposit probably originates from the oxidation of hydrogen sulfide seeping along with methane, which could have been oxidized either abiotically or biologically by sulfur-oxidizing Beggiatoa-like bacteria and archaea. Further oxidation of elemental sulfur might explain the high acidity of the deposit. The oxidizing conditions now prevailing in the Be'eri deposit were revealed by the occurrence of degraded, oxidized, or thiophenic hopanoid structures. Some of them, unambiguously characterized by synthesis, were also obtained by heating hopenes with elemental sulfur, thus suggesting that the latter could play a role, as dehydrogenating and oxidizing agent, in the transformations undergone by organic matter in the Be'eri deposit.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4085-4101
Number of pages17
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number23
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2002
Externally publishedYes


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