We report measurements of resolved 12CH2D2 and 13CH3D at natural abundances in a variety of methane gases produced naturally and in the laboratory. The ability to resolve 12CH2D2 from 13CH3D provides unprecedented insights into the origin and evolution of CH4. The results identify conditions under which either isotopic bond order disequilibrium or equilibrium are expected. Where equilibrium obtains, concordant Δ12CH2D2 and Δ13CH3D temperatures can be used reliably for thermometry. We find that concordant temperatures do not always match previous hypotheses based on indirect estimates of temperature of formation nor temperatures derived from CH4/H2 D/H exchange, underscoring the importance of reliable thermometry based on the CH4 molecules themselves. Where Δ12CH2D2 and Δ13CH3D values are inconsistent with thermodynamic equilibrium, temperatures of formation derived from these species are spurious. In such situations, while formation temperatures are unavailable, disequilibrium isotopologue ratios nonetheless provide novel information about the formation mechanism of the gas and the presence or absence of multiple sources or sinks. In particular, disequilibrium isotopologue ratios may provide the means for differentiating between methane produced by abiotic synthesis vs. biological processes. Deficits in 12CH2D2 compared with equilibrium values in CH4 gas made by surface-catalyzed abiotic reactions are so large as to point towards a quantum tunneling origin. Tunneling also accounts for the more moderate depletions in 13CH3D that accompany the low 12CH2D2 abundances produced by abiotic reactions. The tunneling signature may prove to be an important tracer of abiotic methane formation, especially where it is preserved by dissolution of gas in cool hydrothermal systems (e.g., Mars). Isotopologue signatures of abiotic methane production can be erased by infiltration of microbial communities, and Δ12CH2D2 values are a key tracer of microbial recycling.
Subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems (SLiMEs) under oligotrophic conditions are typically supported by H2. Methanogens and sulfate reducers, and the respective energy processes, are thought to be the dominant players and have been the research foci. Recent investigations showed that, in some deep, fluid-filled fractures in the Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa, methanogens contribute <5% of the total DNA and appear to produce sufficient CH4 to support the rest of the diverse community. This paradoxical situation reflects our lack of knowledge about the in situ metabolic diversity and the overall ecological trophic structure of SLiMEs. Here, we show the active metabolic processes and interactions in one of these communities by combining metatranscriptomic assemblies, metaproteomic and stable isotopic data, and thermodynamic modeling. Dominating the active community are four autotrophic β-proteobacterial genera that are capable of oxidizing sulfur by denitrification, a process that was previously unnoticed in the deep subsurface. They co-occur with sulfate reducers, anaerobic methane oxidizers, and methanogens, which each comprise <5% of the total community. Syntrophic interactions between these microbial groups remove thermodynamic bottlenecks and enable diverse metabolic reactions to occur under the oligotrophic conditions that dominate in the subsurface. The dominance of sulfur oxidizers is explained by the availability of electron donors and acceptors to these microorganisms and the ability of sulfur-oxidizing denitrifiers to gain energy through concomitant S and H2 oxidation. We demonstrate that SLiMEs support taxonomically and metabolically diverse microorganisms, which, through developing syntrophic partnerships, overcome thermodynamic barriers imposed by the environmental conditions in the deep subsurface.
Deep continental subsurface fracture water systems, ranging from 1.1 to 3.3 km below land surface (kmbls), were investigated to characterize the indigenous microorganisms and elucidate microbial carbon sources and their cycling. Analysis of phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) abundances and direct cell counts detected varying biomass that was not correlated with depth. Compound-specific carbon isotope analyses (δ13C and Δ14C) of the phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) and carbon substrates combined with genomic analyses did identify, however, distinct carbon sources and cycles between the two depth ranges studied.
In the shallower boreholes at circa 1 kmbls, isotopic evidence indicated microbial incorporation of biogenic CH4 by the in situ microbial community. At the shallowest site, 1.05 kmbls in Driefontein mine, this process clearly dominated the isotopic signal. At slightly deeper depths, 1.34 kmbls in Beatrix mine, the isotopic data indicated the incorporation of both biogenic CH4 and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) derived from CH4 oxidation. In both of these cases, molecular genetic analysis indicated that methanogenic and methanotrophic organisms together comprised a small component (<5%) of the microbial community. Thus, it appears that a relatively minor component of the prokaryotic community is supporting a much larger overall bacterial community in these samples.
In the samples collected from >3 kmbls in Tau Tona mine (TT107, TT109 Bh2), the CH4 had an isotopic signature suggesting a predominantly abiogenic origin with minor inputs from microbial methanogenesis. In these samples, the isotopic enrichments (δ13C and Δ14C) of the PLFAs relative to CH4 were consistent with little incorporation of CH4 into the biomass. The most 13C-enriched PLFAs were observed in TT107 where the dominant CO2-fixation pathway was the acetyl-CoA pathway by non-acetogenic bacteria. The differences in the δ13C of the PLFAs and the DIC and DOC for TT109 Bh2 were ∼−24‰ and 0‰, respectively. The dominant CO2-fixation pathways were 3-HP/4-HB cycle > acetyl-CoA pathway > reductive pentose phosphate cycle.
Subsurface microbial communities comprise a significant fraction of the global prokaryotic biomass; however, the carbon metabolisms that support the deep biosphere have been relatively unexplored. In order to determine the predominant carbon metabolisms within a 3-km deep fracture fluid system accessed via the Tau Tona gold mine (Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa), metagenomic and thermodynamic analyses were combined. Within our system of study, the energy-conserving reductive acetyl-CoA (Wood-Ljungdahl) pathway was found to be the most abundant carbon fixation pathway identified in the metagenome. Carbon monoxide dehydrogenase genes that have the potential to participate in (1) both autotrophic and heterotrophic metabolisms through the reversible oxidization of CO and subsequent transfer of electrons for sulfate reduction, (2) direct utilization of H2 and (3) methanogenesis were identified. The most abundant members of the metagenome belonged to Euryarchaeota (22%)—by far, the highest relative abundance of Euryarchaeota yet reported from deep fracture fluids in South Africa and one of only five Firmicutes-dominated deep fracture fluids identified in the region. Importantly, by combining the metagenomics data and thermodynamic modeling of this study with previously published isotopic and community composition data from the South African subsurface, we are able to demonstrate that Firmicutes-dominated communities are associated with a particular hydrogeologic environment, specifically the older, more saline and more reducing waters.
The subsurface biosphere represents one of the final frontiers on Earth and may provide a model for how life can survive on other planets. While focusing on terrestrial subsurface and depths of over 3,000 meters underground, we present and apply a variety of computational tools and techniques for exploring the deep biosphere. Life at this depth is scarce and nutrients are often limited to hydrogen, sulfate, and single carbon compounds such as methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Metagenomics and other sequencing techniques shed light onto how subsurface microorganisms transform these limited nutrients into energy and survive underground.
When appropriate, such methods are combined with geochemical measurements and thermodynamic predictions to provide the most accurate picture of life underground. In that direction, we find that the South African subsurface fluids exhibit a spectrum of redox conditions (influenced by the origin and age of the subsurface fluids) that directly affect the microbial community composition and function. Although these large-scale community shifts are believed to occur over long periods underground, we also present evidence for an adaptive methane oxidizing community that responds to changes in geochemistry over relatively short periods. Combined, these results provide a picture of how microbial communities function in the terrestrial subsurface as well as a theoretical framework for understanding the selective pressures these organisms face.