Fossil remnants of bacteria involved in the enhancement of manganese and iron rarely occur within the microstratigraphy of rock varnishes collected from warm desert environments, because varnish formation processes ultimately destroy these microfossils through remobilization of Mn-Fe and reprecipitation in a clay-mineral matrix. In contrast, Mn-Fe encrustations on budding bacteria commonly occur within varnishes that formed within just a century along the Erie Barge Canal, New York. Nanoscale imagery and elemental analyses reveal that these budding bacterial forms greatly enhance Mn, Fe, or both in encrustations surrounding hyphae and cells. The Mn and Fe precipitates have a granular texture on the scale of ˂1 nm to ∼10 nm. The precipitates also have a stringy texture, where strings are typically only a few nanometers wide. These in situ observations are consistent with expectations from studies of budding-bacteria cultures and with the polygenetic model of varnish formation. Given that the Erie Canal site presents the fastest known rate of varnishing, with typical thicknesses around 15 mm formed in a century, only one or two budding bacteria encrusting Mn-Fe oxides each year would be sufficient to generate the observed Erie Canal varnish. This contrasts with one bacterium growing every ∼400 y being needed to generate observed rates of varnishing in typical warm desert settings.
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