Mobile hydrocarbon microspheres from >2-billion-year-old carbon-bearing seams in the South African deep subsurface

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Journal Article
By 2.9 Ga, the time of the deposition of the Witwatersrand Supergroup, life is believed to have been well established on Earth. Carbon remnants of the microbial biosphere from this time period are evident in sediments from around the world. In the Witwatersrand Supergroup, the carbonaceous material is often concentrated in seams, closely associated with the gold deposits and may have been a mobile phase 2 billion years ago. Whereas today the carbon in the Witwatersrand Supergroup is presumed to be immobile, hollow hydrocarbon spheres ranging in size from <1 μm to >50 μm were discovered emanating from a borehole drilled through the carbon-bearing seams suggesting that a portion of the carbon may still be mobile in the deep subsurface. ToF-SIMS and STXM analyses revealed that these spheres contain a suite of alkane, alkenes, and aromatic compounds consistent with the described organic-rich carbon seams within the Witwatersrand Supergroup s auriferous reef horizons. Analysis by electron microscopy and ToF-SIMS, however, revealed that these spheres, although most likely composed of biogenic carbon and resembling biological organisms, do not retain any true structural, that is, fossil, information and were formed by an abiogenic process. © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.