Microbes Fueled by the Earth:
A major research focus of the Brazelton lab is the study of bacteria and archaea who inhabit rock-hosted environments influenced by a process known as serpentinization. These environments host a set of extreme environmental conditions characterized by high concentrations of hydrogen gas, methane, and other simple organic compounds that are attractive food and energy sources for microbes. Serpentinization has been occurring on Earth ever since it became cool enough to have liquid water, and it is also expected to occur on other planets, such as Mars. Therefore, the lessons we learn by studying the weird archaea and bacteria associated with serpentinization are likely to help us understand the origin, distribution, and evolution of life in the solar system.
What is Serpentinization?
Serpentinization is the closest thing to a free lunch that the universe provides. The word 'serpentinization' refers to a complex suite of poorly understood geochemical reactions that occur when rocks from the Earth's mantle are uplifted to the surface. The mantle rocks are oxidized and hydrated by the wet, oxidized conditions at the surface, resulting in the production of water with high pH and high concentrations of hydrogen gas. These reactions occur exothermically (meaning spontaneously), and the elevated levels of hydrogen gas lead to the abiotic synthesis of simple organic compounds. In other words, the consequence of making a rock wet results in the production of hydrogen gas (which is a great fuel for microbial activity) and organic compounds (which everybody likes to eat). The types of rocks involved in the process are possibly even more prevalent beyond Earth, so there is potential for serpentinization activity almost anywhere in the universe where rocks encounter liquid water.
Funding to the lab is also provided by the National Science Foundation, the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, and the Deep Carbon Observatory.
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