At deep-sea hydrothermal vents, reduced, super-heated hydrothermal fluids mix with cold, oxygenated seawater. This creates temperature and chemical gradients that support chemosynthetic primary production and a biomass-rich community of invertebrates. In late 2005/early 2006 an eruption occurred on the East Pacific Rise at 9°50′N, 104°17′W. Direct observations of the post-eruptive diffuse-flow vents indicated that the earliest colonizers were microbial biofilms. Two cruises in 2006 and 2007 allowed us to monitor and sample the early steps of ecosystem recovery. The main objective of this work was to characterize the composition of microbial biofilms in relation to the temperature and chemistry of the hydrothermal fluids and the observed patterns of megafaunal colonization. The area selected for this study had local seafloor habitats of active diffuse flow (in-flow) interrupted by adjacent habitats with no apparent expulsion of hydrothermal fluids (no-flow). The in-flow habitats were characterized by higher temperatures (1.6–25.2 °C) and H2S concentrations (up to 67.3 µM) than the no-flow habitats, and the microbial biofilms were dominated by chemosynthetic Epsilonproteobacteria. The no-flow habitats had much lower temperatures (1.2–5.2 °C) and H2S concentrations (0.3–2.9 µM), and Gammaproteobacteria dominated the biofilms. Siboglinid tubeworms colonized only in-flow habitats, while they were absent at the no-flow areas, suggesting a correlation between siboglinid tubeworm colonization, active hydrothermal flow, and the composition of chemosynthetic microbial biofilms.
Despite the frequent isolation of nitrate-respiring Epsilonproteobacteria from deep-sea hydrothermal vents, the genes coding for the nitrate reduction pathway in these organisms have not been investigated in depth. In this study we have shown that the gene cluster coding for the periplasmic nitrate reductase complex (nap) is highly conserved in chemolithoautotrophic, nitrate-reducing Epsilonproteobacteria from deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Furthermore, we have shown that the napA gene is expressed in pure cultures of vent Epsilonproteobacteria and it is highly conserved in microbial communities collected from deep-sea vents characterized by different temperature and redox regimes. The diversity of nitrate-reducing Epsilonproteobacteria was found to be higher in moderate temperature, diffuse flow vents than in high temperature black smokers or in low temperatures, substrate-associated communities. As NapA has a high affinity for nitrate compared with the membrane-bound enzyme, its occurrence in vent Epsilonproteobacteria may represent an adaptation of these organisms to the low nitrate concentrations typically found in vent fluids. Taken together, our findings indicate that nitrate reduction is widespread in vent Epsilonproteobacteria and provide insight on alternative energy metabolism in vent microorganisms. The occurrence of the nap cluster in vent, commensal and pathogenic Epsilonproteobacteria suggests that the ability of these bacteria to respire nitrate is important in habitats as different as the deep-sea vents and the human body.