Short summary: This study deals with two membrane lipids called BDGTs and PDGTs. Membrane lipids are molecules forming the cell envelope of all organisms. Different organisms produce different lipids thus they can be used to detect the presence of specific organisms in the environment. We analyzed the structure of these new lipids and looked for potential producers. We found that they are likely made by microbes emitting methane below the sediment surface and could be used to track these specific microbes.
Abstract: Butanetriol and pentanetriol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers (BDGTs and PDGTs) are membrane lipids, recently discovered in sedimentary environments and in the methanogenic archaeon Methanomassiliicoccus luminyensis. They possess an unusual structure, which challenges fundamental assumptions in lipid biochemistry. Indeed, they bear a butanetriol or a pentanetriol backbone instead of a glycerol at one end of their core structure. In this study, we unambiguously located the additional methyl group of the BDGT compound on the C3 carbon of the lipid backbone via high-field nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) experiments. We further systematically explored the abundance, distribution and isotopic composition of BDGTs and PDGTs as both intact polar and core lipid forms in marine sediments collected in contrasting environments of the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. High proportions of intact polar BDGTs and PDGTs in the deeper methane-laden sedimentary layers and relatively C-depleted BDGTs, especially in the Rhone Delta and in the Black Sea, are in agreement with a probable methanogenic source for these lipids. However, contributions from heterotrophic Archaea to BDGTs (and PDGTs) cannot be excluded, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and contrasting BDGT and PDGT headgroup distribution patterns were observed between the different sites studied. This points to additional, non-methanogenic, archaeal sources for these lipids.