A demonstration of an affinity between pyrite and organic matter in a hydrothermal setting
© Lindgren et al; licensee Chemistry Central Ltd. 2011
Received: 22 November 2010
Accepted: 7 February 2011
Published: 7 February 2011
One of the key-principles of the iron-sulphur world theory is to bring organic molecules close enough to interact with each other, using the surface of pyrite as a substrate in a hydrothermal setting. The present paper explores the relationship of pyrite and organic matter in a hydrothermal setting from the geological record; in hydrothermal calcite veins from Carboniferous limestones in central Ireland. Here, the organic matter is accumulated as coatings around, and through, pyrite grains. Most of the pyrite grains are euhedral-subhedral crystals, ranging in size from ca 0.1-0.5 mm in diameter, and they are scattered throughout the matrix of the vein calcite. The organic matter was deposited from a hydrothermal fluid at a temperature of at least 200°C, and gives a Raman signature of disordered carbon. This study points to an example from a hydrothermal setting in the geological record, demonstrating that pyrite can have a high potential for the concentration and accumulation of organic materials.
An important requirement for the origin of life is the concentration of organic compounds to allow interaction with each other and with other chemical species. An efficient mechanism for concentrating organic molecules is the adsorption onto mineral surfaces. There are several examples of minerals with strong affinities for the accumulation of organic matter. These include for instance clays , radioactive minerals , zeolites and feldspars  and sulphide minerals including pyrite (FeS2) [4, 5].
Here, we study the relationship between pyrite and migrated organic matter in the geological record, via hydrothermal deposits of the Irish Carboniferous, to assess the potential of pyrite acting as a substrate for organic matter.
Pyrite and the iron-sulphur world
The iron-sulphur world hypothesis for the origin of life was proposed by Wächtershäuser . He suggests that the formation of pyrite (FeS2) is the first energy source for life. The iron-sulphur world takes place in a hydrothermal setting, where iron- and sulphur-rich water produces abundant pyrite deposits. The formation of pyrite releases energy that could have been utilized during an autotrophic setting for the origin of life. The iron-sulphur world scenario for the origin of life stands in contrast to the heterotrophic origin of life in the "cold soup" theory [6, 7]. In addition to an autotrophic origin of life, the iron-sulphur world also proposes pathways for the origin of cell membranes, the origin of DNA, and a range of other biochemical reactions essential to the origin of life .
A key-aspect of the iron-sulphur world theory is the adsorption of organic molecules to the surface of pyrite. The theory predicts that since the surface of pyrite is slightly positively charged, it would attract and bind negatively-charged organic molecules. The organic molecules would be connected to the surface of pyrite with weak ionic bonds, and therefore able to migrate rather freely around the surface of the pyrite crystal. This would make them more likely to interact and form more complex molecules. In fact, pyrite has a positive net charge in acid conditions below pH 6.8, which would be similar to conditions in an oxygen-depleted primordial environment, and a negative charge above pH 6.8 . Several of the chemical reactions involved in the iron-sulphur world scenario have been tested successfully in the laboratory [9–13]. For example, pyrite strongly adsorbs adenine (one of the most important organic molecules for life) in a medium that simulates primordial aqueous environments, and the adsorption of adenine is enhanced in the presence of acetate (an organic precursor of complex metabolic pathways) and in an oxygen-depleted environment [9, 10].
To explore the relationship of pyrite and organic matter in a hydrothermal setting from the geological record, we have studied Carboniferous hydrothermal calcite veins from Mullaghwornia, Ireland, at a locality which retain both pyrite and organic matter.
Pyrite and organic matter in the Irish Carboniferous
Results and discussion
Composition of hydrothermal veins from Mullaghwornia
Interaction of pyrite and organic matter
The occurrence of organic matter in hydrothermal ore deposits, including in sulphide deposits, is widespread . Pyrite is the Earth's most abundant sulphide and occurs in a range of geological environments such as hydrothermal, sedimentary, and igneous settings. Pyrite regularly occurs as inclusions in migrated solid organic matter (bitumen). This relationship of pyrite and organics is not always straightforward, but can arise during direct precipitation and growth of the pyrite out of the bitumen . It could also be an effect of the abrasion of pyrite from the surrounding rock by the migrating organics . Pyrite in bitumen, and in other settings, can form both abiogenically or biogenically. Biogenic pyrite can form by sulphate-reducing bacteria producing H2S from sea-water sulphate, where the S2- may be incorporated into pyrite, or it could form from the reduction of sulphur released by biological degradation of the migrated bitumen itself. Pyrite framboids, raspberry-like aggregates of pyrite spheres, are also sometimes found in organic matter. It is believed that most pyrite framboids are abiogenic and indicators of fast crystal growth, but pyrite framboids can also be a result of microbial activity .
Temperature of hydrothermal fluid
Results of fluid inclusion microthermometry on fluid inclusions in calcite from a hydrothermal vein at Mullaghwornia.
Inclusion size (μm)
Th (°C) (to liquid)
Crystallinity of carbon
Implications for sulphide substrates on Mars and the early Earth
This study is an example from the geological record showing that pyrite, the most abundant terrestrial sulphide, can act as a substrate for the concentration of organic matter, and that this evidence can be preserved and detected in the geological record. Sulphide substrates could also be important for carbon fixation on Mars. There is widespread evidence that sulphur species are prominent in Martian surface environments, assumed to have been introduced to the surface through volcanic activity . The formation of the Mullaghwornia pyrite and organic matter is not a surface process, but it shows that if organic matter is available, it has an affinity to be preserved around pyrite. Currently, the Martian surface is highly oxidizing and therefore sulphates predominate, but early in the planet's history reducing conditions pertained. Accordingly, it has been suggested that sulphides occur on Mars , now preserved at depth. Sulphides are also known to be present on Mars from Martian meteorites [34, 35]. Sulphide grains which are rimmed by a thin layer of poorly graphitized carbon have already been detected in carbonaceous chondrites and chondritic interplanetary dust particles [36, 37], and in the Tagish Lake meteorite . Other evidence from the geological record that sulphides preserve organics includes sulphides in Proterozoic and Ordovician sandstones from Canada, which contain high concentrations of amino acids .
In addition to acting as a substrate for the concentration of organic matter, there are also other advantages of sulphides as a potential target for the detection of life. Since sulphides that are produced by microbial sulphate reduction can preserve both morphological and chemical evidence of fossil life, they are proposed as targets for the exploration for fossil life on Mars, through measurements of isotopic composition  and search for entrapped microbial fossils .
The mineralogical composition of the early Earth is debated, but metal-sulphides were probably widespread , and in particular iron-sulphides are found as detrital mineral components in several Archaean deposits. In terms of the iron-sulphur world theory, the relationship of the pyrite and organic matter in the hydrothermal veins of Mullaghwornia is an example from the geological record supporting the idea that the surface of pyrite acts as a substrate for the adsorption of organic molecules.
The samples were prepared as thin sections and blocks for petrographic microscopy and for analyses with an XL30 environmental scanning electron microscope with a field emission gun (XL30 ESEM-FEG). The ESEM was equipped with an Oxford x-act energy dispersive spectrometer (EDS), backscatter electron detector (BSE) and secondary electron detector (SE). The samples were coated with a layer of ca 15 nm carbon prior to analyses in high vacuum. The acceleration voltage was 20 kV. The instrument was calibrated with a cobalt standard.
A 150 μm thick doubly-polished wafer was prepared for fluid inclusion analysis. The fluid inclusion microthermometric analyses were performed with a Linkam THM 600 stage, mounted on a Nikon microscope, with a working range from -196°C to +600°C. The thermocouple readings were calibrated by means of SynFlinc synthetic fluid inclusions and well-defined natural inclusions in Alpine quartz.
Raman spectroscopic analyses were conducted on thin sections and on small unpolished samples. Raman spectra were acquired by using a multichannel Dilor XY Laser Raman spectrometer. The laser source was an Innova 70 argon laser with a wavelength of 514.5 nm (green line). Laser focusing on the sample was performed through a petrographic microscope fitted with a 100× objective. The laser power was set at 200 mW at the entrance of the microscope. The spectra were accumulated in 20 increments with a measuring time of 3 s each. Calibration was made with respect to wavenumber using a neon laser and a silicon standard.
All the analyses were conducted at the Department of Geological Sciences, Stockholm University, Sweden.
We are grateful to Marianne Ahlbom at the Department of Geological Sciences, Stockholm University for skilled technical support, and to the Swedish National Space Board and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation for financial support. Careful reviews by two anonymous reviewers substantially improved the quality of this manuscript.
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