Relating Microbial Community Structure and Geochemistry in Deep Regolith Developed on Volcaniclastic Rock in the Luquillo Mountains, Puerto Rico

Laura J. Liermann, Istvan Albert, Heather L. Buss, Morgan Minyard, Susan L. Brantley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Fe oxidation is often the first chemical reaction that initiates weathering and disaggregation of intact bedrock into regolith. Here we explore the use of pyrosequencing tools to test for evidence that bacteria participate in these reactions in deep regolith. We analyze regolith developed on volcaniclastic rocks of the Fajardo formation in a ridgetop within the rainforest of the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico. In the 9-m-deep regolith profile, the primary minerals chlorite, feldspar, and pyroxene are detected near 8.3 m but weather to kaolinite and Fe oxides found at shallower depths. Over the regolith profile, both total and heterotrophic bacterial cell counts generally increase from the bedrock to the surface. Like other soil microbial studies, the dominant phyla detected are Proteobacteria, Acidobacteria, Planctomycetes, and Actinobacteria. Proteobacteria (α, β, γ and δ) were the most abundant at depth (6.8–9 m, 41–44%), while Acidobacteria were the most abundant at the surface (1.4–4.4 m, 37–43%). Despite the fact that Acidobacteria dominated surficial communities while Proteobacteria dominated near bedrock, the near-surface and near-bedrock communities were not statistically different in structure but were statistically different from mid-depth communities. Approximately 21% of all sequences analyzed did not match known sequences: the highest fraction of unmatched sequences was greatest at mid-depth (45% at 4.4 m). At the regolith-bedrock interface where weathering begins, several lines of evidence are consistent with biotic Fe oxidation. At that interface, iron-related bacterial activity tests and culturing indicate the presence of iron-related bacteria, and phylogenetic analyses identified sub-phyla containing known iron-oxidizing microorganisms. Cell densities of iron-oxidizers in the deep saprolite were estimated to be on the order of 105 cells g−1. Overall Fe loss was also observed at the regolith-bedrock interface, consistent with bacterial production of organic acids and leaching of Fe-organic complexes. Fe-organic species were also detected to be enriched near the bedrock-regolith interface. In this and other deep weathering profiles, chemolithoautotrophic bacteria that use Fe for energy and nitrate or oxygen as an electron acceptor may play an important role in initiating disaggregation of bedrock.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)494-510
Number of pages17
JournalGeomicrobiology Journal
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jul 3 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Environmental Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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