AbstractSediment underlying ocean gyres receives minimal input of fresh organic matter yet sustains a small but active heterotrophic microbial community. The concentration and composition of the organic carbon (OC) available to this deep biosphere however is unknown. We analyzed the content and composition of OC in pelagic sediment in order to identify mechanism(s) that dictate the balance between OC preservation and utilization by microorganisms. Sediment cores from the North Atlantic gyre (KN223), South Pacific Gyre (Knox02-RR), and Peru Basin (IODP site 1231) allowed for a global comparison and a test of how sediment lithology and redox state affect OC preservation. OC was present in low concentrations in all samples (0.01—0.61%), at depths up to 112 meters below seafloor and estimated sediment ages of up to 50 million years. Synchrotron-based near edge X-ray absorption fine structure (NEXAFS) spectroscopy was conducted on over 100 samples, one of the first applications of NEXAFS to sedimentary environments. NEXAFS revealed an OC reservoir dominated by amide and carboxylic functionalities in a scaffolding of O-alkyl and aliphatic carbons. Detection of extractable, extracellular proteins supports this composition and suggests that sedimentary OC is protein-derived. This composition was common across all sites and depths, implicating physical rather than chemical mechanisms in OC preservation on long timescales. This study thereby points to physical access rather than energy or metabolic potential as a key constraint on subsurface heterotrophic life.
Minerals have recently been identified as a primary host for organic carbon (OC) within marine sediments. This strong physical and chemical carbon-mineral association is believed to reduce, and in some cases completely eliminate, the bioavailablilty of this carbon for microbial life. The paucity of information regarding the nature of this carbon-mineral association and the composition of the hosted carbon, however, precludes our ability to predict the ultimate fate of this OC and its involvement in deep subsurface life. Here, we addressed this knowledge gap by using a suite of bulk and spatially-resolved geochemical and mineralogical techniques to characterize OC-mineral associations within the deep subsurface. We characterized sediment samples collected on the 2014 North Atlantic long coring expedition (KN223) in the western subtropical North Atlantic that included three geochemically distinct long cores to a depth of 24-30 m and spanned OC-limited oxic to anoxic sediments. We find measurable and relevant OC concentrations throughout the sediment cores, that decreases linearly over ~25 meters burial depth, from ~0.15 to 0.075 mol OC/kg solid. OC within the sediments is compositionally complex on both a macro- and micro-scale, spanning a gradient of lability even at depth. Proteins are observed throughout the sediment depth profiles, where they appear to constitute a substantial fraction of the TOC. Correspondingly, a low C:N ratio is observed, consistent with proteinaceous carbon within the sediments. In sum, these findings point to a substantial mineral-hosted OC reservoir within the deep subsurface that may fuel the deep biosphere and select for protein-based heterotrophy.