Many studies have examined relationships of microorganisms to geochemical zones in subseafloor sediment. However, responses to selective pressure and patterns of community succession with sediment depth have rarely been examined. Here we use 16S rDNA sequencing to examine the succession of microbial communities at sites in the Indian Ocean and the Bering Sea. The sediment ranges in depth from 0.16 to 332 m below seafloor and in age from 660 to 1,300,000 years. The majority of subseafloor taxonomic diversity is present in the shallowest depth sampled. The best predictor of sequence presence or absence in the oldest sediment is relative abundance in the near-seafloor sediment. This relationship suggests that perseverance of specific taxa into deep, old sediment is primarily controlled by the taxonomic abundance that existed when the sediment was near the seafloor. The operational taxonomic units that dominate at depth comprise a subset of the local seafloor community at each site, rather than a grown-in group of geographically widespread subseafloor specialists. At both sites, most taxa classified as abundant decrease in relative frequency with increasing sediment depth and age. Comparison of community composition to cell counts at the Bering Sea site indicates that the rise of the few dominant taxa in the deep subseafloor community does not require net replication, but might simply result from lower mortality relative to competing taxa on the long timescale of community burial.
Nearly half of the global seafloor is overlain by sediment oxygenated to the basement. Yet, despite the availability of oxygen to fuel aerobic respiration, organic carbon persists over million-year timescales. Identifying the controls on organic carbon preservation requires an improved understanding of the composition and distribution of organic carbon within deep oligotrophic marine sediments. Here we show that organic carbon in sediment from the oligotrophic North Atlantic and South Pacific is low (<0.1%), yet stable to depths of 25 m and ages of 24 million years. This organic carbon is not bound in biomass and has a low carbon/nitrogen ratio. X-ray imaging and spectroscopic analyses reveal that the chemical composition of this old, deep organic carbon is dominated (40–60%) by amide and carboxylic carbon with a proteinaceous nature. We posit that organic carbon persists in oxic oligotrophic sediment through a combination of protective processes that involve adsorption to mineral surfaces and physical inaccessibility to the heterotrophic community. We estimate that up to 1.6 × 1022 g of organic carbon are sequestered on million-year timescales in oxic pelagic sediment, which exceeds current estimates of the total global sediment organic carbon and constitutes an important, previously overlooked carbon reservoir.