Viruses are highly abundant in marine subsurface sediments and can even exceed the number of prokaryotes. However, their activity and quantitative impact on microbial populations are still poorly understood. Here, we use gene expression data from published continental margin subseafloor metatranscriptomes to qualitatively assess viral diversity and activity in sediments up to 159 metres below seafloor (mbsf). Mining of the metatranscriptomic data revealed 4651 representative viral homologues (RVHs), representing 2.2% of all metatranscriptome sequence reads, which have close translated homology (average 77%, range 60–97% amino acid identity) to viral proteins. Archaea‐infecting RVHs are exclusively detected in the upper 30 mbsf, whereas RVHs for filamentous inoviruses predominate in the deepest sediment layers. RVHs indicative of lysogenic phage–host interactions and lytic activity, notably cell lysis, are detected at all analysed depths and suggest a dynamic virus–host association in the marine deep biosphere studied here. Ongoing lytic viral activity is further indicated by the expression of clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeat‐associated cascade genes involved in cellular defence against viral attacks. The data indicate the activity of viruses in subsurface sediment of the Peruvian margin and suggest that viruses indeed cause cell mortality and may play an important role in the turnover of subseafloor microbial biomass.
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.