How microbial metabolism is translated into cellular reproduction under energy-limited settings below the seafloor over long timescales is poorly understood. Here, we show that microbial abundance increases an order of magnitude over a 5 million-year-long sequence in anoxic subseafloor clay of the abyssal North Atlantic Ocean. This increase in biomass correlated with an increased number of transcribed protein-encoding genes that included those involved in cytokinesis, demonstrating that active microbial reproduction outpaces cell death in these ancient sediments. Metagenomes, metatranscriptomes, and 16S rRNA gene sequencing all show that the actively reproducing community was dominated by the candidate phylum “Candidatus Atribacteria,” which exhibited patterns of gene expression consistent with fermentative, and potentially acetogenic, metabolism. “Ca. Atribacteria” dominated throughout the 8 million-year-old cored sequence, despite the detection limit for gene expression being reached in 5 million-year-old sediments. The subseafloor reproducing “Ca. Atribacteria” also expressed genes encoding a bacterial microcompartment that has potential to assist in secondary fermentation by recycling aldehydes and, thereby, harness additional power to reduce ferredoxin and NAD+. Expression of genes encoding the Rnf complex for generation of chemiosmotic ATP synthesis were also detected from the subseafloor “Ca. Atribacteria,” as well as the Wood-Ljungdahl pathway that could potentially have an anabolic or catabolic function. The correlation of this metabolism with cytokinesis gene expression and a net increase in biomass over the million-year-old sampled interval indicates that the “Ca. Atribacteria” can perform the necessary catabolic and anabolic functions necessary for cellular reproduction, even under energy limitation in millions-of-years-old anoxic sediments.
Ammonia-oxidizing archaea (AOA) dominate microbial communities throughout oxic subseafloor sediment deposited over millions of years in the North Atlantic Ocean. Rates of nitrification correlated with the abundance of these dominant AOA populations, whose metabolism is characterized by ammonia oxidation, mixotrophic utilization of organic nitrogen, deamination, and the energetically efficient chemolithoautotrophic hydroxypropionate/hydroxybutyrate carbon fixation cycle. These AOA thus have the potential to couple mixotrophic and chemolithoautotrophic metabolism via mixotrophic deamination of organic nitrogen, followed by oxidation of the regenerated ammonia for additional energy to fuel carbon fixation. This metabolic feature likely reduces energy loss and improves AOA fitness under energy-starved, oxic conditions, thereby allowing them to outcompete other taxa for millions of years.