Marine dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is one of the largest active reservoirs of reduced carbon on Earth. In the deep ocean, DOC has been described as biologically recalcitrant and has a radiocarbon age of 4,000 to 6,000 years, which far exceeds the timescale of ocean overturning. However, abiotic removal mechanisms cannot account for the full magnitude of deep-ocean DOC loss. Deep-ocean water circulates at low temperatures through volcanic crust on ridge flanks, but little is known about the associated biogeochemical processes and carbon cycling. Here we present analyses of DOC in fluids from two borehole observatories installed in crustal rocks west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and show that deep-ocean DOC is removed from these cool circulating fluids. The removal mechanism is isotopically selective and causes a shift in specific features of molecular composition, consistent with microbe-mediated oxidation. We suggest organic molecules with an average radiocarbon age of 3,200 years are bioavailable to crustal microbes, and that this removal mechanism may account for at least 5% of the global loss of DOC in the deep ocean. Cool crustal circulation probably contributes to maintaining the deep ocean as a reservoir of ‘aged’ and refractory DOC by discharging the surviving organic carbon constituents that are molecularly degraded and depleted in 14C and 13C into the deep ocean.
Microbial ecology within oligotrophic marine sediment is poorly understood, yet is critical for understanding geochemical cycles. Here, 16S rRNA sequences from RNA and DNA inform the structure of active and total microbial communities in oligotrophic sediment on the western flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Sequences identified as Bacillariophyta chloroplast were detected within DNA, but undetectable within RNA, suggesting preservation in 5.6-million-year-old sediment. Statistical analysis revealed that RNA-based microbial populations correlated significantly with nitrogen concentrations, whereas DNA-based populations did not correspond to measured geochemical analytes. Bioenergetic calculations determined which metabolisms could yield energy in situ, and found that denitrification, nitrification, and nitrogen fixation were all favorable. A metagenome was produced from one sample, and included genes mediating nitrogen redox processes. Nitrogen respiration by active bacteria is an important metabolic strategy in North Pond sediments, and could be widespread in the oligotrophic sedimentary biosphere.