Washington, Jan 23 : A new research by scientists has discovered that microbes present in hot water springs might help in the dating of sedimentary rocks.
For the research, scientists studied microbial communities and the growth of sedimentary rocks at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, US.
"We found microbes change the rate at which calcium carbonate precipitates, and that rate controls the chemistry and shape of calcium carbonate crystals," said Bruce Fouke, a professor of geology and of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois.
A form of sedimentary rock, calcium carbonate is the most abundant mineral precipitated on the surface of Earth, and a great recorder of life.
The researchers' findings imply changes in calcium carbonate mineralization rates in the rock record may have resulted from changes in local microbial biomass concentrations throughout geologic history.
"As calcium carbonate is deposited, it leaves a chemical fingerprint of the animals and environment, the plants and bacteria that were there," said Fouke.
Fouke's research team has spent 10 years quantifying the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the hot springs environment.
The last step in deciphering the calcium carbonate record was performing an elaborate field experiment, which drew water from a hot springs vent and compared deposition rates with and without microbes being present.
"Angel Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park is an ideal, natural laboratory because of the high precipitation rates and the abundance of microbes," said Fouke. "Calcium carbonate grows so fast - millimeters per day - we can examine the interaction between microorganisms and the calcium-carbonate precipitation process," he added.
The researchers found that the rate of precipitation drops drastically - sometimes by more than half - when microbes are not present.
"So one of the fingerprints of calcium carbonate deposition that will tell us for sure if there were microbes present at the time it formed is the rate at which it formed," said Fouke. "And, within the environmental and ecological context of the rock being studied, we can now use chemistry to fingerprint the precipitation rate," he added.
According to Fouke, "This means we can go into the rock record, on Earth or other planets, and determine if calcium carbonate deposits were associated with microbial life."