Life may have emerged on early Earth in serpentinizing systems, where ultramafic rocks react with aqueous solutions to generate high levels of dissolved H2 and CH4 and, on meeting seawater, steep redox, ionic, and pH gradients. Most extant life harnesses energy as ion (e.g., H+, Na+) gradients across membranes, and it seems reasonable to suggest that environments with steep ion gradients would have also been important for early life forms. The Strytan Hydrothermal Field (SHF) is a mid-ocean ridge–flank submarine hydrothermal (~70 °C) vent in Iceland that produces steep Na+ (<3–468 mM) and pH (8.1–10.2) gradients, concomitant with enrichments in methane (0.5–1.4 μM) and hydrogen (0.1–5.2 μM), relative to seawater. Large (up to 55 m) saponite towers create ideal "incubators" similar to other proposed origin-of-life analogs (e.g., Lost City hydrothermal field in the mid-Atlantic). However, the SHF is basalt hosted. We suggest that the observed conditions are generated by (1) plagioclase hydrolysis, coupled with calcite precipitation, and (2) hydration of Mg in pyroxene and olivine in basalt. Along with microbial activity, aqueous reactions of Fe in olivine and pyroxene are possible sources of the observed H2. Although the δ13C-CH4 values were highly variable (–53‰ to –8‰), isotopically heavy CH4 suggests possible abiotic formation or the imprint of methane oxidation. If environments similar to SHF occurred on the early Earth, they should be considered as potential origin-of-life environments.
One of the most important classic and contemporary interests in biology is the connection between cellular composition and physiological function. Decades of research have allowed us to understand the detailed relationship between various cellular components and processes for individual species, and have uncovered common functionality across diverse species. However, there still remains the need for frameworks that can mechanistically predict the tradeoffs between cellular functions and elucidate and interpret average trends across species. Here we provide a comprehensive analysis of how cellular composition changes across the diversity of bacteria as connected with physiological function and metabolism, spanning five orders of magnitude in body size. We present an analysis of the trends with cell volume that covers shifts in genomic, protein, cellular envelope, RNA and ribosomal content. We show that trends in protein content are more complex than a simple proportionality with the overall genome size, and that the number of ribosomes is simply explained by cross-species shifts in biosynthesis requirements. Furthermore, we show that the largest and smallest bacteria are limited by physical space requirements. At the lower end of size, cell volume is dominated by DNA and protein content—the requirement for which predicts a lower limit on cell size that is in good agreement with the smallest observed bacteria. At the upper end of bacterial size, we have identified a point at which the number of ribosomes required for biosynthesis exceeds available cell volume. Between these limits we are able to discuss systematic and dramatic shifts in cellular composition. Much of our analysis is connected with the basic energetics of cells where we show that the scaling of metabolic rate is surprisingly superlinear with all cellular components.
The ability of microorganisms to withstand long periods with extremely low energy input has gained increasing scientific attention in recent years. Starvation experiments in the laboratory have shown that a phylogenetically wide range of microorganisms evolve fitness-enhancing genetic traits within weeks of incubation under low-energy stress. Studies on natural environments that are cut off from new energy supplies over geologic time scales, such as deeply buried sediments, suggest that similar adaptations might mediate survival under energy limitation in the environment. Yet, the extent to which laboratory-based evidence of starvation survival in pure or mixed cultures can be extrapolated to sustained microbial ecosystems in nature remains unclear. In this review, we discuss past investigations on microbial energy requirements and adaptations to energy limitation, identify gaps in our current knowledge, and outline possible future foci of research on life under extreme energy limitation.
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.