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Understanding the role of microorganisms in the formation of iron sulfides in the sedimentary record

   Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

About the Project

The iron sulfide mineral greigite, Fe3S4, is found widely in nature, especially in sulfate-reducing diagenetic sedimentary environments. Its ferrimagnetic properties mean it is often the main carrier of palaeomagnetic and palaeo-environmental information used in polar wandering and climate change models covering the last 4M years of Earth history. It is therefore essential we understand how this critically important mineral forms in sediments but this is currently poorly constrained. Distinguishing primary, syn-diagenetic or secondary origin of Fe sulfides in sediments is essential to allow interpretation of this paleomagnetic record, but little is known about their formation and, in particular, the late diagnetic growth of greigite. Previous organic geochemical analyses of iron sulfide nodules containing greigite and pyrite (FeS2) collected from the upper Pliocene Valle Rica section indicate the presence of a microbial community during its formation similar to those found in cold seeps and sediments where anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) coupled to sulfate reduction plays a dominant role. The sulfide formed would have been available to react with iron oxides and dissolved Fe2+ which could explain the formation of the nodules. Considering that the migration of methane in marine sediments and the subsequent AOM process is widespread, these results suggest that the above process could be a dominant factor in the formation of secondary iron sulfides in all sediments and could have a profound impact on the associated paleomagnetic records.

In this project, the student will study the critical factors controlling the formation of iron sulfides in the sedimentary record, including concretions, nodules and nano-spheres, with particular focus on the role of micro-organisms in these processes. This will be achieved primarily by organic geochemical analyses combined with compound specific isotope analyses (13C) of intact iron sulfide-bearing nodules/ concretions/ sediments from different environments to study the biomarker compositions present and the role of methane during the formation processes. The magnetic properties of the greigite will be studied using state-of-the-art SQUID magnetometry and synchrotron magnetic X-ray spectroscopy (XMCD) to identify the nature of their magnetic signals and their relationship to mineral growth. The study of natural material will be complemented by lab experiments to demonstrate the bioprecipitation of the iron reducing bacterial strains and specific natural communities, and correlated with changes in microbial community structure and inorganic geochemistry. This will identify the critical links between methane metabolism and the biogeochemical cycling of iron and sulfate and sedimentary iron sulfide formation. 

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When applying please search and select programme ' PhD Environmental Science' and plan 'PhD Environmental Geochemistry and Geomicrobiology'

Funding Notes

This is a self funded project for start in 22/23 academic year. Tuition fee for Home students is £11,000 and £32,000 for EU and International students. There is potential for this project to be funded in the future.


• van Dongen, B.E., Roberts, A.P., Schouten, S., Jiang, W.T., Florindo, F., Pancost, R.D. (2007) Formation of iron sulphide nodules during anaerobic oxidation of methane. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. Doi:10.1016/j.gca.2007.08.019
• Coker, V.S., Byrne, J.M, Telling, N.D., van der Laan, G., Lloyd, J.R., Hitchcock, A.P, Wang, J. & Pattrick, R.A.D. (2012) Characterization of the dissimilatory reduction of Fe(III) oxyhydroxide at the microbe-metal interface: application of STXM-XMCD. Geobiology, 10, 347-354

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