Despite accounting for the majority of sedimentary methane, the physiology and relative abundance of subsurface methanogens remain poorly understood. We combined intact polar lipid and metagenome techniques to better constrain the presence and functions of methanogens within the highly reducing, organic-rich sediments of Antarctica’s Adélie Basin. The assembly of metagenomic sequence data identified phylogenic and functional marker genes of methanogens and generated the first Methanosaeta sp. genome from a deep subsurface sedimentary environment. Based on structural and isotopic measurements, glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers with diglycosyl phosphatidylglycerol head groups were classified as biomarkers for active methanogens. The stable carbon isotope (δ13C) values of these biomarkers and the Methanosaeta partial genome suggest that these organisms are acetoclastic methanogens and represent a relatively small (0.2%) but active population. Metagenomic and lipid analyses suggest that Thaumarchaeota and heterotrophic bacteria co-exist with Methanosaeta and together contribute to increasing concentrations and δ13C values of dissolved inorganic carbon with depth. This study presents the first functional insights of deep subsurface Methanosaeta organisms and highlights their role in methane production and overall carbon cycling within sedimentary environments.
Subseafloor mixing of reduced hydrothermal fluids with seawater is believed to provide the energy and substrates needed to support deep chemolithoautotrophic life in the hydrated oceanic mantle (i.e., serpentinite). However, geosphere-biosphere interactions in serpentinite-hosted subseafloor mixing zones remain poorly constrained. Here we examine fossil microbial communities and fluid mixing processes in the subseafloor of a Cretaceous Lost City-type hydrothermal system at the magma-poor passive Iberia Margin (Ocean Drilling Program Leg 149, Hole 897D). Brucite−calcite mineral assemblages precipitated from mixed fluids ca. 65 m below the Cretaceous paleo-seafloor at temperatures of 31.7 ± 4.3 °C within steep chemical gradients between weathered, carbonate-rich serpentinite breccia and serpentinite. Mixing of oxidized seawater and strongly reducing hydrothermal fluid at moderate temperatures created conditions capable of supporting microbial activity. Dense microbial colonies are fossilized in brucite−calcite veins that are strongly enriched in organic carbon (up to 0.5 wt.% of the total carbon) but depleted in 13C (δ13CTOC = −19.4‰). We detected a combination of bacterial diether lipid biomarkers, archaeol, and archaeal tetraethers analogous to those found in carbonate chimneys at the active Lost City hydrothermal field. The exposure of mantle rocks to seawater during the breakup of Pangaea fueled chemolithoautotrophic microbial communities at the Iberia Margin, possibly before the onset of seafloor spreading. Lost City-type serpentinization systems have been discovered at midocean ridges, in forearc settings of subduction zones, and at continental margins. It appears that, wherever they occur, they can support microbial life, even in deep subseafloor environments.