Stable carbon isotope ratios of intact GDGTs indicate heterogeneous sources to marine sediments Academic Article uri icon


  • 2016 Elsevier Ltd. Thaumarchaeota, the major sources of marine glycerol dibiphytanyl glycerol tetraether lipids (GDGTs), are believed to fix the majority of their carbon directly from dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC). The 13C values of GDGTs (13CGDGT) may be powerful tools for reconstructing variations in the ocean carbon cycle, including paleoproductivity and water mass circulation, if they can be related to values of 13CDIC. To date, isotope measurements primarily are made on the C40 biphytane skeletons of GDGTs, rather than on complete tetraether structures. This approach erases information revealed by the isotopic heterogeneity of GDGTs within a sample and may impart an isotopic fractionation associated with the ether cleavage. To circumvent these issues, we present 13C values for GDGTs from twelve recent sediments representing ten continental margin locations. Samples are purified by orthogonal dimensions of HPLC, followed by measurement of 13C values by Spooling Wire Microcombustion (SWiM)-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) with 1 precision and accuracy of 0.25. Using this approach, we confirm that GDGTs, generally around -19, are isotopically "heavy" compared to other marine lipids. However, measured 13CGDGT values are inconsistent with predicted values based on the 13C content of DIC in the overlying water column and the previously-published biosynthetic isotope fractionation for a pure culture of an autotrophic marine thaumarchaeon. In some sediments, the isotopic composition of individual GDGTs differs, indicating multiple source inputs. The data appear to confirm that crenarchaeol primarily is a biomarker for Thaumarchaeota, but its 13C values still cannot be explained solely by autotrophic carbon fixation. Overall the complexity of the results suggests that both organic carbon assimilation (ca. 25% of total carbon) and multiple source(s) of exogenous GDGTs (contributing generally <30% of input to sediments) are necessary to explain the observed 13CGDGT values. The results suggest caution when interpreting the total inputs of GDGTs to sedimentary records. Biogenic or open-slope sediments, rather than clastic basinal or shallow shelf sediments, are preferred locations for generating minimally-biased GDGT proxy records.

published proceedings


altmetric score

  • 11.2

author list (cited authors)

  • Pearson, A., Hurley, S. J., Walter, S., Kusch, S., Lichtin, S., & Zhang, Y. G.

citation count

  • 47

complete list of authors

  • Pearson, Ann||Hurley, Sarah J||Walter, Sunita R Shah||Kusch, Stephanie||Lichtin, Samantha||Zhang, Yi Ge

publication date

  • January 2016