Energy-starved microbes in deep marine sediments subsist at near-zero growth for thousands of years, yet the mechanisms for their subsistence are unknown because no model strains have been cultivated from most of these groups. We investigated Baltic Sea sediments with single-cell genomics, metabolomics, metatranscriptomics, and enzyme assays to identify possible subsistence mechanisms employed by uncultured Atribacteria, Aminicenantes, Actinobacteria group OPB41, Aerophobetes, Chloroflexi, Deltaproteobacteria, Desulfatiglans, Bathyarchaeota, and Euryarchaeota marine group II lineages. Some functions appeared to be shared by multiple lineages, such as trehalose production and NAD+-consuming deacetylation, both of which have been shown to increase cellular life spans in other organisms by stabilizing proteins and nucleic acids, respectively. Other possible subsistence mechanisms differed between lineages, possibly providing them different physiological niches. Enzyme assays and transcripts suggested that Atribacteria and Actinobacteria group OPB41 catabolized sugars, whereas Aminicenantes and Atribacteria catabolized peptides. Metabolite and transcript data suggested that Atribacteria utilized allantoin, possibly as an energetic substrate or chemical protectant, and also possessed energy-efficient sodium pumps. Atribacteria single-cell amplified genomes (SAGs) recruited transcripts for full pathways for the production of all 20 canonical amino acids, and the gene for amino acid exporter YddG was one of their most highly transcribed genes, suggesting that they may benefit from metabolic interdependence with other cells. Subsistence of uncultured phyla in deep subsurface sediments may occur through shared strategies of using chemical protectants for biomolecular stabilization, but also by differentiating into physiological niches and metabolic interdependencies.
Microbial life in the deep subsurface biosphere is taxonomically and metabolically diverse, but it is vigorously debated whether the resident organisms are thriving (metabolizing, maintaining cellular integrity, and expressing division genes) or just surviving. As part of Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition 347: Baltic Sea Paleoenvironment, we extracted and sequenced RNA from organic carbon-rich, nutrient-replete, and permanently anoxic sediment. In stark contrast to the oligotrophic subsurface biosphere, Baltic Sea Basin samples provided a unique opportunity to understand the balance between metabolism and other cellular processes. Targeted sequencing of 16S rRNA transcripts showed Atribacteria (an uncultured phylum) and Chloroflexi to be among the dominant and the active members of the community. Metatranscriptomic analysis identified methane cycling, sulfur cycling, and halogenated compound utilization as active in situ respiratory metabolisms. Genes for cellular maintenance, cellular division, motility, and antimicrobial production were also transcribed. This indicates that microbial life in deep subsurface Baltic Sea Basin sediments was not only alive, but thriving.