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Biogeosciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 02 Jan 2019

Research article | 02 Jan 2019

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This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal Biogeosciences (BG).

Organic signatures in Pleistocene cherts from Lake Magadi (Kenya), analogs for early Earth hydrothermal deposits

Manuel Reinhardt1,2, Walter Goetz1, Jan-Peter Duda3, Christine Heim2, Joachim Reitner2,4, and Volker Thiel2 Manuel Reinhardt et al.
  • 1Planets and Comets, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, 37077 Göttingen, Germany
  • 2Department of Geobiology, Geoscience Centre, University of Göttingen, 37077 Göttingen, Germany
  • 3Department of Earth Sciences, University of California Riverside, CA 92521, USA
  • 4"Origin of Life" Group, Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 37073 Göttingen, Germany

Abstract. Organic matter in Archean hydrothermal cherts may provide an important archive for molecular traces of earliest life on Earth. The geobiological interpretation of this archive, however, requires a sound understanding of organic matter preservation and alteration in hydrothermal systems. Here we report on organic matter (including molecular biosignatures) enclosed in hydrothermally influenced cherts of the Pleistocene Lake Magadi (Kenya; High Magadi Beds and Green Beds) – important analogs for Archean cherts. The Magadi cherts contain low organic carbon (<0.4wt.%) that occurs in form of finely dispersed clots, layers, or encapsulated within microscopic carbonate rhombs. Both, extractable (bitumen) and non-extractable organic matter (kerogen) was analyzed. The bitumens contain immature biolipids like glycerol mono- and diethers (e.g., archaeol and extended archaeol), fatty acids and – alcohols indicative for, inter alia, thermophilic cyanobacteria, sulfate reducers, and haloarchaea. However, co-occurring geolipids such as n-alkanes, hopanes, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) indicate that a fraction of the bitumen has been thermally altered to early or peak oil window maturity. This more mature fraction likely originated from defunctionalization of dissolved organic matter and/or hydrothermal petroleum formation at places of higher thermal flux. Like the bitumens, the kerogens also show variations in thermal maturities, which can partly be explained by admixture of thermally pre-altered macromolecules. However, findings of archaea-derived isoprenoid moieties in some of the kerogens indicate that a fast sequestration of microbial lipids into kerogen must have occurred while hydrothermal alteration was active. We posit that such early sequestration may enhance the survival of molecular biosignatures during in-situ hydrothermal (and post-depositional) alteration through deep time. Furthermore, the co-occurrence of organic matter with different thermal maturities in the Lake Magadi cherts suggests that similar findings in Archean hydrothermal deposits could partly reflect original environmental conditions, and not exclusively post-depositional overprint or contamination. Our results support the view that kerogen in Archean hydrothermal cherts may contain important information on early life. Our study also highlights the suitability of Lake Magadi as an analog system for hydrothermal chert environments on the Archean Earth.

Manuel Reinhardt et al.
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Manuel Reinhardt et al.
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Short summary
Organic matter in Archean hydrothermal cherts may contain molecular traces of early life. Alteration processes during and after deposition, however, may have obliterated potential biosignatures. Our results from modern analog samples (Pleistocene cherts from Lake Magadi, Kenya) show that biomolecules can survive early hydrothermal destruction in the macromolecular fraction of the organic matter. A conservation of molecular biosignatures in Archean hydrothermal cherts therefore seems possible.
Organic matter in Archean hydrothermal cherts may contain molecular traces of early life....