The composition of sulfur isotopes in sedimentary sulfides and sulfates traces the sulfur cycle throughout Earth's history. In particular, depletions of sulfur-34 ((34)S) in sulfide relative to sulfate exceeding 47 per mil ( per thousand) often serve as a proxy for the disproportionation of intermediate sulfur species in addition to sulfate reduction. Here, we demonstrate that a pure, actively growing culture of a marine sulfate-reducing bacterium can deplete (34)S by up to 66 per thousand during sulfate reduction alone and in the absence of an extracellular oxidative sulfur cycle. Therefore, similar magnitudes of sulfur isotope fractionation in sedimentary rocks do not unambiguously record the presence of other sulfur-based metabolisms or the stepwise oxygenation of Earth's surface environment during the Proterozoic.
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