In situ oxidation of sulfide minerals supports widespread sulfate reducing bacteria in the deep subsurface of the Witwatersrand Basin (South Africa): Insights from multiple sulfur and oxygen isotopes

Long Li, Siwen Wei, Barbara Sherwood Lollar, Boswell Wing, Thi H. Bui, Shuhei Ono, Maggie C.Y. Lau Vetter, Tullis C. Onstott, Thomas L. Kieft, Gaetan Borgonie, Borja Linage-Alvarez, Olukayode Kuloyo, Esta van Heerden

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Dissolved sulfate is a crucial electron acceptor for the subsurface biosphere, particularly for the living microbial ecosystems in the long-isolated (on the order of millions to billions of years) deep subsurface fracture waters in Precambrian cratons, e.g., in the Witwatersrand Basin of the Kaapvaal Craton, South Africa. Aiming to understand the role of sulfate in the sustainability of the subsurface habitat and the spatial extent of the terrestrial subsurface biosphere, we carried out a basin-scale examination on the sources and producing mechanisms of dissolved sulfur (sulfate and sulfide) in the subsurface fracture waters in the Witwatersrand Basin using multiple sulfur isotopes (32,33,34,36S) and oxygen isotopes (16,18O). Dissolved sulfates in 14 fracture water samples collected from 900 to 3,413 meters below the surface at 6 sites show isotopic ranges from −5.3‰ to +19.4‰ for δ34S, −0.40‰ to +0.50‰ for Δ33S, and −1.1‰ to +10.9‰ for δ18O. These isotopic signatures are distinct to those of the sulfate minerals (e.g., the carbonate-associated sulfate in local Transvaal Supergroup dolomite sequences: δ34S = +31.4‰ to +39.2‰; Δ33S = −0.01‰ to +0.16‰), but identical to those of the sulfide minerals in the host rocks. This indicates that the dissolved sulfate in the fracture waters were dominantly generated by in situ oxidation of sulfide minerals at basin scale, although mixing of a small amount of surface sulfate at some sites cannot be completely ruled out. The dissolved sulfates in the less deep and less saline fracture waters are in oxygen isotope disequilibrium with their host waters, a surprising result given that the water residence times are orders of magnitude longer than the time required for oxygen isotope exchange to reach equilibrium. This implies that vigorous in situ sulfate production has occurred after the fracture waters were isolated. In contrast, the dissolved sulfate in the deeper, more saline waters are in apparent oxygen isotope equilibration or close to equilibration with their host waters. This might be attributed to a combined effect of faster oxygen isotope exchange between sulfate and water at higher temperatures, larger extent of sulfate reduction, and/or less efficient sulfate production. The dissolved sulfide in the fracture waters has similar Δ33S values but is 3.0‰ to 26.4‰ lower in δ34S than coexisting sulfate, suggesting that the dissolved sulfide is mostly generated from bacterial sulfate reduction, which is consistent with the widespread existence of sulfate-reducing bacteria down to >3.4 km below surface in the Witwatersrand Basin. Overall, these novel isotopic results demonstrate that geological processes can provide a steady long-term sulfate source in deep fracture fluids by in situ oxidation of sulfide minerals in their host rocks, and thereby a mechanism to sustain the terrestrial subsurface biosphere, even in deep, high-temperature, long-isolated water systems. Thus, sulfate as a terminal electron acceptor is not the limiting factor for the spatial expansion of terrestrial subsurface biosphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117247
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • Witwatersrand Basin
  • microbial sulfate reduction
  • multiple sulfur isotopes
  • oxygen isotopes
  • subsurface biosphere
  • sulfide oxidation


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