Deep continental subsurface fracture water systems, ranging from 1.1 to 3.3 km below land surface (kmbls), were investigated to characterize the indigenous microorganisms and elucidate microbial carbon sources and their cycling. Analysis of phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) abundances and direct cell counts detected varying biomass that was not correlated with depth. Compound-specific carbon isotope analyses (δ13C and Δ14C) of the phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) and carbon substrates combined with genomic analyses did identify, however, distinct carbon sources and cycles between the two depth ranges studied.
In the shallower boreholes at circa 1 kmbls, isotopic evidence indicated microbial incorporation of biogenic CH4 by the in situ microbial community. At the shallowest site, 1.05 kmbls in Driefontein mine, this process clearly dominated the isotopic signal. At slightly deeper depths, 1.34 kmbls in Beatrix mine, the isotopic data indicated the incorporation of both biogenic CH4 and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) derived from CH4 oxidation. In both of these cases, molecular genetic analysis indicated that methanogenic and methanotrophic organisms together comprised a small component (<5%) of the microbial community. Thus, it appears that a relatively minor component of the prokaryotic community is supporting a much larger overall bacterial community in these samples.
In the samples collected from >3 kmbls in Tau Tona mine (TT107, TT109 Bh2), the CH4 had an isotopic signature suggesting a predominantly abiogenic origin with minor inputs from microbial methanogenesis. In these samples, the isotopic enrichments (δ13C and Δ14C) of the PLFAs relative to CH4 were consistent with little incorporation of CH4 into the biomass. The most 13C-enriched PLFAs were observed in TT107 where the dominant CO2-fixation pathway was the acetyl-CoA pathway by non-acetogenic bacteria. The differences in the δ13C of the PLFAs and the DIC and DOC for TT109 Bh2 were ∼−24‰ and 0‰, respectively. The dominant CO2-fixation pathways were 3-HP/4-HB cycle > acetyl-CoA pathway > reductive pentose phosphate cycle.
Continuous culture under elevated pressures is an important technique for expanding the exploration of microbial growth and survival in extreme environments associated with the deep biosphere. Here we present a benchtop stirred continuous culture bioreactor capable of withstanding temperatures ranging from 25 to 120°C and pressures as high as 69 MPa. The system is configured to allow the employment of media enriched in dissolved gases, under oxic or anoxic conditions, while permitting periodic sampling of the incubated organisms with minimal physical/chemical disturbance inside the reactor. In a pilot experiment, the fermentative growth of the thermopiezophilic bacterium Marinitoga piezophila was investigated continuously for 382 h at 65°C and at pressures ranging from 0.1 to 40 MPa while the medium flow rate was varied from 2 to 0.025 ml/min. The enhanced growth observed at 30 and 40 MPa and 0.025 ml/min supports the pressure preferences of M. piezophila when grown fermentatively. This assay successfully demonstrates the capabilities of the bioreactor for continuous culturing at a variety of dilution rates, pressures, and temperatures. We anticipate that this technology will accelerate our understanding of the physiological and metabolic status of microorganisms under temperature, pressure, and energy regimes resembling those of the Earth's piezosphere.