Tracking down carbon inputs underground from an arid zone Australian calcrete.
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Freshwater ecosystems play a key role in shaping the global carbon cycle and maintaining the ecological balance that sustains biodiversity worldwide. Surficial water bodies are often interconnected with groundwater, forming a physical continuum, and their interaction has been reported as a crucial driver for organic matter (OM) inputs in groundwater systems. However, despite the growing concerns related to increasing anthropogenic pressure and effects of global change to groundwater environments, our understanding of the dynamics regulating subterranean carbon flows is still sparse. We traced carbon composition and transformations in an arid zone calcrete aquifer using a novel multidisciplinary approach that combined isotopic analyses of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and inorganic carbon (DIC) (δ13CDOC, δ13CDIC, 14CDOC and 14CDIC) with fluorescence spectroscopy (Chromophoric Dissolved OM (CDOM) characterisation) and metabarcoding analyses (taxonomic and functional genomics on bacterial 16S rRNA). To compare dynamics linked to potential aquifer recharge processes, water samples were collected from two boreholes under contrasting rainfall: low rainfall ((LR), dry season) and high rainfall ((HR), wet season). Our isotopic results indicate limited changes and dominance of modern terrestrial carbon in the upper part (northeast) of the bore field, but correlation between HR and increased old and 13C-enriched DOC in the lower area (southwest). CDOM results show a shift from terrestrially to microbially derived compounds after rainfall in the same lower field bore, which was also sampled for microbial genetics. Functional genomic results showed increased genes coding for degradative pathways-dominated by those related to aromatic compound metabolisms-during HR. Our results indicate that rainfall leads to different responses in different parts of the bore field, with an increase in old carbon sources and microbial processing in the lower part of the field. We hypothesise that this may be due to increasing salinity, either due to mobilisation of Cl- from the soil, or infiltration from the downstream salt lake during HR. This study is the first to use a multi-technique assessment using stable and radioactive isotopes together with functional genomics to probe the principal organic biogeochemical pathways regulating an arid zone calcrete system. Further investigations involving extensive sampling from diverse groundwater ecosystems will allow better understanding of the microbiological pathways sustaining the ecological functioning of subterranean biota.
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