Methane seeps are globally distributed geologic features in which reduced fluid from below the seafloor is advected upward and meets the oxidized bottom waters of Earth’s oceans. This redox gradient fuels chemosynthetic communities anchored by the microbially-mediated anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM). Both today and in Earth’s past, methane seeps have supported diverse biological communities extending from microorgansisms to macrofauna and adding to the diversity of life on Earth. Simultaneously, the carbon cycling associated with methane seeps may have played a significant role in modulating ancient Earth’s climate, particularly by acting as a control on methane emissions.
The AOM metabolism generates alkalinity and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and at a 2:1 ratio, promoting the abiogenic, or authigenic, precipitation of carbonate minerals. Over time, these precipitates can grow into pavements covering hundreds of square meters on the seafloor and dominating the volumetric habitat space available in seep ecosystems. Importantly, carbonates are incorporated into the geologic record and therefore preserve an inorganic (i.e., d13C) and organic (i.e., lipid biomarker) history of methane seepage. However, the extent to which preserved biomarkers represent a snapshot of microorganisms present at the time of primary precipitation, a time-integrated history of microbial assemblages across the life cycle of a methane seep, or a view of the final microorganisms inhabiting a carbonate prior to incorporation in the sedimentary record is unresolved.
This thesis addresses the ecology of carbonate-associated seep microorganisms. Chapters One and Two contextualize the extant microbial diversity on seep carbonates versus within seep sediments, as determined through 16S rRNA gene biomarkers. Small, protolithic carbonate “nodules” recovered from within seep sediments are observed to be capable of capturing surrounding sediment-hosted microbial diversity, but in some cases also diverge from sediments. Meanwhile, lithified carbonate blocks recovered from the seafloor host microbial assemblages demonstrably distinct from seep sediments (and seep nodules). Microbial 16S rRNA gene diversity within carbonate samples is well-differentiated by the extent of contemporary seepage. In situ seafloor transplantation experiments further demonstrated the microbial assemblages associated with seep carbonates to be sensitive to seep quiescence and activation on short (13-month) timescales. This was particularly true for organisms whose 16S rRNA genes imply physiologies dependent on methane or sulfur oxidation. With an improved understanding of the modern ecology of carbonate-associated microorganisms, Chapter Three applies intact polar lipid (IPL) and core lipid analyses to begin describing whether, and to what extent, geologically relevant biomarkers mimic short-term dynamics observed in 16S rRNA gene profiles versus archive a record of historic microbial diversity. Biomarker longevity is determined to increase from 16S rRNA genes to IPLs to core lipids, with IPLs preserving microbial diversity history on timescales more similar to 16S rRNA genes than core lipids. Ultimately, individual IPL biomarkers are identified which may be robust proxies for determining whether the biomarker profile recorded in a seep carbonate represents vestiges of active seepage processes, or the profile of a microbial community persisting after seep quiescence.
Methane seep systems along continental margins host diverse and dynamic microbial assemblages, sustained in large part through the microbially mediated process of sulfate-coupled Anaerobic Oxidation of Methane (AOM). This methanotrophic metabolism has been linked to consortia of anaerobic methane-oxidizing archaea (ANME) and sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB). These two groups are the focus of numerous studies; however, less is known about the wide diversity of other seep associated microorganisms. We selected a hierarchical set of FISH probes targeting a range of Deltaproteobacteria diversity. Using the Magneto-FISH enrichment technique, we then magnetically captured CARD-FISH hybridized cells and their physically associated microorganisms from a methane seep sediment incubation. DNA from nested Magneto-FISH experiments was analyzed using Illumina tag 16S rRNA gene sequencing (iTag). Enrichment success and potential bias with iTag was evaluated in the context of full-length 16S rRNA gene clone libraries, CARD-FISH, functional gene clone libraries, and iTag mock communities. We determined commonly used Earth Microbiome Project (EMP) iTAG primers introduced bias in some common methane seep microbial taxa that reduced the ability to directly compare OTU relative abundances within a sample, but comparison of relative abundances between samples (in nearly all cases) and whole community-based analyses were robust. The iTag dataset was subjected to statistical co-occurrence measures of the most abundant OTUs to determine which taxa in this dataset were most correlated across all samples. Many non-canonical microbial partnerships were statistically significant in our co-occurrence network analysis, most of which were not recovered with conventional clone library sequencing, demonstrating the utility of combining Magneto-FISH and iTag sequencing methods for hypothesis generation of associations within complex microbial communities. Network analysis pointed to many co-occurrences containing putatively heterotrophic, candidate phyla such as OD1, Atribacteria, MBG-B, and Hyd24-12 and the potential for complex sulfur cycling involving Epsilon-, Delta-, and Gammaproteobacteria in methane seep ecosystems.
Increasing anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere causes global warming and subsequent environmental changes, which may lead to an increase in natural disasters jeopardizing human society. Prompt technological development for CO2 capture and sequestration is required in the international community. In this study, we performed CO2 emission and shallow-type methane hydrate decomposition experiments at the Joetsu Knoll, offshore Joetsu, Niigata, Japan, as pilot studies to test feasibility of CO2 sequestration and methane recovery using methane-CO2 replacement in shallow-type methane hydrates. An isobaric cylinder pump and probe with a built-in heater (“Heat sonde”) were developed to inject CO2 in deep-sea, high-pressure conditions. Before injecting CO2 into a methane hydrate located in deep-sea sediments, we attempted CO2 emission directly into deep-seafloor. In the experiment, liquid CO2 was emitted at the head of Heat sonde, however, the isobaric cylinder pump became clogged during operation. The result reveals that precipitates of CO2 hydrate, which are generated during mixing of inflow seawater and outflow liquid CO2, blocked flow lines of the isobaric cylinder pump and Heat sonde. This suggests that our developed instruments must be improved for future work. We also observed the collapse of an exposed methane hydrate layer at the seafloor upon contact with the Heat sonde in our experiment.