Subsurface microbial communities undertake many terminal electron-accepting processes, often simultaneously. Using a tritium-based assay, we measured the potential hydrogen oxidation catalyzed by hydrogenase enzymes in several subsurface sedimentary environments (Lake Van, Barents Sea, Equatorial Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico) with different predominant electron-acceptors. Hydrogenases constitute a diverse family of enzymes expressed by microorganisms that utilize molecular hydrogen as a metabolic substrate, product, or intermediate. The assay reveals the potential for utilizing molecular hydrogen and allows qualitative detection of microbial activity irrespective of the predominant electron-accepting process. Because the method only requires samples frozen immediately after recovery, the assay can be used for identifying microbial activity in subsurface ecosystems without the need to preserve live material. We measured potential hydrogen oxidation rates in all samples from multiple depths at several sites that collectively span a wide range of environmental conditions and biogeochemical zones. Potential activity normalized to total cell abundance ranges over five orders of magnitude and varies, dependent upon the predominant terminal electron acceptor. Lowest per-cell potential rates characterize the zone of nitrate reduction and highest per-cell potential rates occur in the methanogenic zone. Possible reasons for this relationship to predominant electron acceptor include (i) increasing importance of fermentation in successively deeper biogeochemical zones and (ii) adaptation of H2ases to successively higher concentrations of H2 in successively deeper zones.
The global geographic distribution of subseafloor sedimentary microbes and the cause(s) of that distribution are largely unexplored. Here, we show that total microbial cell abundance in subseafloor sediment varies between sites by ca. five orders of magnitude. This variation is strongly correlated with mean sedimentation rate and distance from land. Based on these correlations, we estimate global subseafloor sedimentary microbial abundance to be 2.9⋅1029 cells [corresponding to 4.1 petagram (Pg) C and ∼0.6% of Earth’s total living biomass]. This estimate of subseafloor sedimentary microbial abundance is roughly equal to previous estimates of total microbial abundance in seawater and total microbial abundance in soil. It is much lower than previous estimates of subseafloor sedimentary microbial abundance. In consequence, we estimate Earth’s total number of microbes and total living biomass to be, respectively, 50–78% and 10–45% lower than previous estimates.
Microbial communities can subsist at depth in marine sediments without fresh supply of organic matter for millions of years. At threshold sedimentation rates of 1 millimeter per 1000 years, the low rates of microbial community metabolism in the North Pacific Gyre allow sediments to remain oxygenated tens of meters below the sea floor. We found that the oxygen respiration rates dropped from 10 micromoles of O2 liter−1 year−1 near the sediment-water interface to 0.001 micromoles of O2 liter−1 year−1 at 30-meter depth within 86 million-year-old sediment. The cell-specific respiration rate decreased with depth but stabilized at around 10−3 femtomoles of O2 cell−1 day−1 10 meters below the seafloor. This result indicated that the community size is controlled by the rate of carbon oxidation and thereby by the low available energy flux.