Recent advances in nucleic acid extraction and sequencing have changed and expanded our understanding of the diversity of life in the terrestrial and marine subsurface. This chapter highlights recent developments in sequencing genetic material from the deep biosphere (spurred in part by the Census of Deep Life) and new bioinformatics approaches to present a synthesis of our current understanding of the biogeography of life in the deep biosphere. Building from this data framework, this chapter also explores emerging trends in understanding the ecology and evolution of subsurface life.
IODP Expedition 357 used two seabed drills to core 17 shallow holes at 9 sites across Atlantis Massif ocean core complex (Mid-Atlantic Ridge 30°N). The goals of this expedition were to investigate serpentinization processes and microbial activity in the shallow subsurface of highly altered ultramafic and mafic sequences that have been uplifted to the seafloor along a major detachment fault zone. More than 57 m of core were recovered, with borehole penetration ranging from 1.3 to 16.4 meters below seafloor, and core recovery as high as 75% of total penetration in one borehole. The cores show highly heterogeneous rock types and alteration associated with changes in bulk rock chemistry that reflect multiple phases of magmatism, fluid-rock interaction and mass transfer within the detachment fault zone. Recovered ultramafic rocks are dominated by pervasively serpentinized harzburgite with intervals of serpentinized dunite and minor pyroxenite veins; gabbroic rocks occur as melt impregnations and veins. Dolerite intrusions and basaltic rocks represent the latest magmatic activity. The proportion of mafic rocks is volumetrically less than the amount of mafic rocks recovered previously by drilling the central dome of Atlantis Massif at IODP Site U1309. This suggests a different mode of melt accumulation in the mantle peridotites at the ridge-transform intersection and/or a tectonic transposition of rock types within a complex detachment fault zone. The cores revealed a high degree of serpentinization and metasomatic alteration dominated by talc-amphibole-chlorite overprinting. Metasomatism is most prevalent at contacts between ultramafic and mafic domains (gabbroic and/or doleritic intrusions) and points to channeled fluid flow and silica mobility during exhumation along the detachment fault. The presence of the mafic lenses within the serpentinites and their alteration to mechanically weak talc, serpentine and chlorite may also be critical in the development of the detachment fault zone and may aid in continued unroofing of the upper mantle peridotite/gabbro sequences.
New technologies were also developed for the seabed drills to enable biogeochemical and microbiological characterization of the environment. An in situ sensor package and water sampling system recorded real-time variations in dissolved methane, oxygen, pH, oxidation reduction potential (Eh), and temperature and during drilling and sampled bottom water after drilling. Systematic excursions in these parameters together with elevated hydrogen and methane concentrations in post-drilling fluids provide evidence for active serpentinization at all sites. In addition, chemical tracers were delivered into the drilling fluids for contamination testing, and a borehole plug system was successfully deployed at some sites for future fluid sampling. A major achievement of IODP Expedition 357 was to obtain microbiological samples along a west–east profile, which will provide a better understanding of how microbial communities evolve as ultramafic and mafic rocks are altered and emplaced on the seafloor. Strict sampling handling protocols allowed for very low limits of microbial cell detection, and our results show that the Atlantis Massif subsurface contains a relatively low density of microbial life.
Serpentinization is the process in which ultramafic rocks, characteristic of the upper mantle, react with water liberating mantle carbon and reducing power to potenially support chemosynthetic microbial communities. These communities may be important mediators of carbon and energy exchange between the deep Earth and the surface biosphere. Our work focuses on the Coast Range Ophiolite Microbial Observatory (CROMO) in Northern California where subsurface fluids are accessible through a series of wells. Preliminary analyses indicate that the highly basic fluids (pH 9-12) have low microbial diversity, but there is limited knowledge about the metabolic capabilities of these communties. Metagenomic data from similar serpentine environments  have identified Betaproteobacteria belonging to the order Burkholderiales and Gram-positive bacteria from the phylum Clostridiales, as key components of the serpentine microbiome. In an effort to better characterize the microbial community, metabolism, and geochemistry at CROMO, fluids from two representative wells (N08B and CSWold) were sampled during a recent field campaign. The wells selected can be differentiated in that N08B had cell counts ranging from 105 -106 cells mL-1 of fluid, and abundance of the Betaproteobacterium Hydrogenophaga. In contrast, fluids from CSWold have lower cell counts (~103 cells mL-1 ) and an abundance of Dethiobacter, a taxon within the phylum Clostridiales. Geochemical characterization of the fluids includes measurements of dissolved gases (H2, CO, CH4), dissolved inorganic and organic carbon, volatile fatty acids, and nutrients. Microcosm experiments were conducted with the purpose of monitoring carbon fixation and metabolism of small organic compounds, such as acetate, while tracing changes in fluid chemistry and microbial community composition. These experiments are expected to provide insight into the biogeochemical dynamics of the serpentinite subsurface at CROMO and represent a first step for developing RNA based Stable Isotope Probing (RNA-SIP) experiments to trace microbial activity at this site.
My attendance at the Gordon Research Seminar and Conference on Marine Microbes, which had a focus of metagenomic analysis of microbial communities, allowed me to learn more about how next generation sequencing techniques and data analysis is being used in the field of marine microbiology so that I may apply it to the subsurface serpentinite environment. At both the seminar and the conference, I presented a poster entitled “Biogeography of Functional Genes in Serpentinization-Driven Ecosystems,” in which I outlined the analysis methods used to identify and compare functional genes necessary for the metabolism of volatiles produced during the geochemical process of serpentinization. The conference was incredibly informative and allowed me to make contacts for potential future collaborations.