Many acidic hot springs in Yellowstone National Park support microbial iron oxidation, reduction, or microbial iron redox cycling (MIRC), as determined by microcosm rate experiments. Microbial dissimilatory iron reduction (DIR) was detected in numerous systems with a pH < 4. Rates of DIR are influenced by the availability of ferric minerals and organic carbon. Microbial iron oxidation (MIO) was detected from pH 2 – 5.5. In systems with abundant Fe (II), dissolved oxygen controls the presence of MIO. Rates generally increase with increased Fe(II) concentrations, but rate constants are not significantly altered by additions of Fe(II). MIRC was detected in systems with abundant ferric mineral deposition.
The rates of microbial and abiological iron oxidation were determined in a variety of cold (T= 9-12°C), circumneutral (pH = 5.5-9) environments in the Swiss Alps. Rates of MIO were measured in systems up to a pH of 7.4; only abiotic processes were detected at higher pH values. Iron oxidizing bacteria (FeOB) were responsible for 39-89% of the net oxidation rate at locations where biological iron oxidation was detected. Members of putative iron oxidizing genera, especially Gallionella, are abundant in systems where MIO was measured. Speciation calculations reveal that ferrous iron typically exists as FeCO30, FeHCO3+, FeSO40 or Fe2+ in these systems. The presence of ferrous (bi)carbonate species appear to increase abiotic iron oxidation rates relative to locations without significant concentrations. This approach, integrating geochemistry, rates, and community composition, reveals biogeochemical conditions that permit MIO, and locations where the abiotic rate is too fast for the biotic process to compete.
For a reaction to provide habitability for microbes in a given environment, it must energy yield and this energy must dissipate slowly enough to remain bioavailable. Thermodynamic boundaries exist at conditions where reactions do not yield energy, and can be quantified by calculations of chemical energy. Likewise, kinetic boundaries exist at conditions where the abiotic reaction rate is so fast that reactants are not bioavailable; this boundary can be quantified by measurements biological and abiological rates. The first habitability maps were drawn, using iron oxidation as an example, by quantifying these boundaries in geochemical space.