Stromatolitic digitate sinters form under wide-ranging physicochemical conditions with diverse hot spring microbial communities

Chanenath Sriaporn, Kathleen A. Campbell, Maeva Millan, Steven W. Ruff, Martin J. Van Kranendonk, Kim M. Handley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Digitate siliceous hot spring deposits are a form of biomediated sinter that is relatively common in the Taupo Volcanic Zone (TVZ), New Zealand, and elsewhere on Earth. Such deposits have gained prominence recently because of their morphological similarity to opaline silica rocks of likely hot spring origin found by the Spirit rover on Mars and the consequent implications for potential biosignatures there. Here, we investigate the possible relationship between microbial community composition and morphological diversity among digitate structures from actively forming siliceous hot spring sinters depositing subaerially in shallow discharge channels and around pool rims at several physicochemically distinct geothermal fields in the TVZ. The TVZ digitate sinters range in morphologic subtype from knobby to spicular, and are shown to be microstromatolites that grow under varied pH ranges, temperatures, and water chemistries. Scanning electron microscopy and molecular analyses revealed that TVZ digitate sinters are intimately associated with a diverse array of bacterial, archaeal and eukaryotic micro-organisms, and for most digitate structures the diversity and quantity of prokaryotes was higher than that of eukaryotes. However, microbial community composition was not correlated with morphologic subtypes of digitate sinter, and observations provided limited evidence that pH (acidic versus alkali) affects morphology. Instead, results suggest hydrodynamics may be an important factor influencing variations in morphology, while water chemistry, pH, and temperature are strong drivers of microbial composition and diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)619-640
Number of pages22
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • biosignature
  • digitate sinter
  • hot springs
  • microbial communities
  • silicification
  • stromatolite

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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