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.
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.
International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 370 aimed to explore the limits of life in the deep subseafloor biosphere at a location where temperature increases with depth at an intermediate rate and exceeds the known temperature maximum of microbial life (~120°C) at the sediment/basement interface ~1.2 km below the seafloor. Drilling Site C0023 is located in the vicinity of Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Sites 808 and 1174 at the protothrust zone in the Nankai Trough off Cape Muroto at a water depth of 4776 m. ODP Leg 190 in 2000, revealed the presence of microbial cells at Site 1174 to a depth of ~600 meters below seafloor (mbsf), which corresponds to an estimated temperature of ~70°C, and reliably identified a single zone of higher cell concentrations just above the décollement at around 800 mbsf, where temperature presumably reached 90°C; no cell count data was reported for other sediment layers in the 70°–120°C range, because the limit of manual cell count for low-biomass samples was not high enough. With the establishment of Site C0023, we aimed to detect and investigate the presence or absence of life and biological processes at the biotic–abiotic transition with unprecedented analytical sensitivity and precision. Expedition 370 was the first expedition dedicated to subseafloor microbiology that achieved time-critical processing and analyses of deep biosphere samples by simultaneous shipboard and shore-based investigations.
Our primary objectives during Expedition 370 were to study the relationship between the deep subseafloor biosphere and temperature. We aimed to comprehensively study the factors that control biomass, activity, and diversity of microbial communities in a subseafloor environment where temperatures increase from ~2°C at the seafloor to ~120°C at the sediment/basement interface and thus likely encompasses the biotic–abiotic transition zone. We also aimed to determine geochemical, geophysical, and hydrogeological characteristics in sediment and the underlying basaltic basement and elucidate if the supply of fluids containing thermogenic and/or geogenic nutrient and energy substrates may support subseafloor microbial communities in the Nankai accretionary complex.
To address these primary scientific objectives and questions, we penetrated 1180 m and recovered 112 cores across the sediment/basalt interface. More than 13,000 samples were collected, and selected samples were transferred to the Kochi Core Center by helicopter for simultaneous microbiological sampling and analysis in laboratories with a super-clean environment. Following the coring operations, a temperature observatory with 13 thermistor sensors was installed in the borehole to 863 mbsf.
The past decade of scientific ocean drilling has revealed seemingly ubiquitous, slow-growing microbial life within a range of deep biosphere habitats. Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 337 expanded these studies by successfully coring Miocene-aged coal beds 2 km below the seafloor hypothesized to be “hot spots” for microbial life. To characterize the activity of coal-associated microorganisms from this site, a series of stable isotope probing (SIP) experiments were conducted using intact pieces of coal and overlying shale incubated at in situ temperatures (45 °C). The 30-month SIP incubations were amended with deuterated water as a passive tracer for growth and different combinations of 13C- or 15N-labeled methanol, methylamine, and ammonium added at low (micromolar) concentrations to investigate methylotrophy in the deep subseafloor biosphere. Although the cell densities were low (50–2,000 cells per cubic centimeter), bulk geochemical measurements and single-cell–targeted nanometer-scale secondary ion mass spectrometry demonstrated active metabolism of methylated substrates by the thermally adapted microbial assemblage, with differing substrate utilization profiles between coal and shale incubations. The conversion of labeled methylamine and methanol was predominantly through heterotrophic processes, with only minor stimulation of methanogenesis. These findings were consistent with in situ and incubation 16S rRNA gene surveys. Microbial growth estimates in the incubations ranged from several months to over 100 y, representing some of the slowest direct measurements of environmental microbial biosynthesis rates. Collectively, these data highlight a small, but viable, deep coal bed biosphere characterized by extremely slow-growing heterotrophs that can utilize a diverse range of carbon and nitrogen substrates.
Increasing anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere causes global warming and subsequent environmental changes, which may lead to an increase in natural disasters jeopardizing human society. Prompt technological development for CO2 capture and sequestration is required in the international community. In this study, we performed CO2 emission and shallow-type methane hydrate decomposition experiments at the Joetsu Knoll, offshore Joetsu, Niigata, Japan, as pilot studies to test feasibility of CO2 sequestration and methane recovery using methane-CO2 replacement in shallow-type methane hydrates. An isobaric cylinder pump and probe with a built-in heater (“Heat sonde”) were developed to inject CO2 in deep-sea, high-pressure conditions. Before injecting CO2 into a methane hydrate located in deep-sea sediments, we attempted CO2 emission directly into deep-seafloor. In the experiment, liquid CO2 was emitted at the head of Heat sonde, however, the isobaric cylinder pump became clogged during operation. The result reveals that precipitates of CO2 hydrate, which are generated during mixing of inflow seawater and outflow liquid CO2, blocked flow lines of the isobaric cylinder pump and Heat sonde. This suggests that our developed instruments must be improved for future work. We also observed the collapse of an exposed methane hydrate layer at the seafloor upon contact with the Heat sonde in our experiment.
Microbial life inhabits deeply buried marine sediments, but the extent of this vast ecosystem remains poorly constrained. Here we provide evidence for the existence of microbial communities in ~40° to 60°C sediment associated with lignite coal beds at ~1.5 to 2.5 km below the seafloor in the Pacific Ocean off Japan. Microbial methanogenesis was indicated by the isotopic compositions of methane and carbon dioxide, biomarkers, cultivation data, and gas compositions. Concentrations of indigenous microbial cells below 1.5 km ranged from <10 to ~104 cells cm−3. Peak concentrations occurred in lignite layers, where communities differed markedly from shallower subseafloor communities and instead resembled organotrophic communities in forest soils. This suggests that terrigenous sediments retain indigenous community members tens of millions of years after burial in the seabed.
The depth of oxygen penetration into marine sediments differs considerably from one region to another. In areas with high rates of microbial respiration, O2 penetrates only millimetres to centimetres into the sediments, but active anaerobic microbial communities are present in sediments hundreds of metres or more below the sea floor. In areas with low sedimentary respiration, O2 penetrates much deeper but the depth to which microbial communities persist was previously unknown. The sediments underlying the South Pacific Gyre exhibit extremely low areal rates of respiration. Here we show that, in this region, microbial cells and aerobic respiration persist through the entire sediment sequence to depths of at least 75 metres below sea floor. Based on the Redfield stoichiometry of dissolved O2 and nitrate, we suggest that net aerobic respiration in these sediments is coupled to oxidation of marine organic matter. We identify a relationship of O2 penetration depth to sedimentation rate and sediment thickness. Extrapolating this relationship, we suggest that oxygen and aerobic communities may occur throughout the entire sediment sequence in 15–44% of the Pacific and 9–37% of the global sea floor. Subduction of the sediment and basalt from these regions is a source of oxidized material to the mantle.
A remarkable number of microbial cells have been enumerated within subseafloor sediments, suggesting a biological impact on geochemical processes in the subseafloor habitat. However, the metabolically active fraction of these populations is largely uncharacterized. In this study, an RNA-based molecular approach was used to determine the diversity and community structure of metabolically active bacterial populations in the upper sedimentary formation of the Nankai Trough seismogenic zone. Samples used in this study were collected from the slope apron sediment overlying the accretionary prism at Site C0004 during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 316. The sediments represented microbial habitats above, within, and below the sulfate–methane transition zone (SMTZ), which was observed approximately 20 m below the seafloor (mbsf). Small subunit ribosomal RNA were extracted, quantified, amplified, and sequenced using high-throughput 454 pyrosequencing, indicating the occurrence of metabolically active bacterial populations to a depth of 57 mbsf. Transcript abundance and bacterial diversity decreased with increasing depth. The two communities below the SMTZ were similar at the phylum level, however only a 24% overlap was observed at the genus level. Active bacterial community composition was not confined to geochemically predicted redox stratification despite the deepest sample being more than 50 m below the oxic/anoxic interface. Genus-level classification suggested that the metabolically active subseafloor bacterial populations had similarities to previously cultured organisms. This allowed predictions of physiological potential, expanding understanding of the subseafloor microbial ecosystem. Unique community structures suggest very diverse active populations compared to previous DNA-based diversity estimates, providing more support for enhancing community characterizations using more advanced sequencing techniques.