Subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems (SLiMEs) under oligotrophic conditions are typically supported by H2. Methanogens and sulfate reducers, and the respective energy processes, are thought to be the dominant players and have been the research foci. Recent investigations showed that, in some deep, fluid-filled fractures in the Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa, methanogens contribute <5% of the total DNA and appear to produce sufficient CH4 to support the rest of the diverse community. This paradoxical situation reflects our lack of knowledge about the in situ metabolic diversity and the overall ecological trophic structure of SLiMEs. Here, we show the active metabolic processes and interactions in one of these communities by combining metatranscriptomic assemblies, metaproteomic and stable isotopic data, and thermodynamic modeling. Dominating the active community are four autotrophic β-proteobacterial genera that are capable of oxidizing sulfur by denitrification, a process that was previously unnoticed in the deep subsurface. They co-occur with sulfate reducers, anaerobic methane oxidizers, and methanogens, which each comprise <5% of the total community. Syntrophic interactions between these microbial groups remove thermodynamic bottlenecks and enable diverse metabolic reactions to occur under the oligotrophic conditions that dominate in the subsurface. The dominance of sulfur oxidizers is explained by the availability of electron donors and acceptors to these microorganisms and the ability of sulfur-oxidizing denitrifiers to gain energy through concomitant S and H2 oxidation. We demonstrate that SLiMEs support taxonomically and metabolically diverse microorganisms, which, through developing syntrophic partnerships, overcome thermodynamic barriers imposed by the environmental conditions in the deep subsurface.
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.
Subsurface microbial communities comprise a significant fraction of the global prokaryotic biomass; however, the carbon metabolisms that support the deep biosphere have been relatively unexplored. In order to determine the predominant carbon metabolisms within a 3-km deep fracture fluid system accessed via the Tau Tona gold mine (Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa), metagenomic and thermodynamic analyses were combined. Within our system of study, the energy-conserving reductive acetyl-CoA (Wood-Ljungdahl) pathway was found to be the most abundant carbon fixation pathway identified in the metagenome. Carbon monoxide dehydrogenase genes that have the potential to participate in (1) both autotrophic and heterotrophic metabolisms through the reversible oxidization of CO and subsequent transfer of electrons for sulfate reduction, (2) direct utilization of H2 and (3) methanogenesis were identified. The most abundant members of the metagenome belonged to Euryarchaeota (22%)—by far, the highest relative abundance of Euryarchaeota yet reported from deep fracture fluids in South Africa and one of only five Firmicutes-dominated deep fracture fluids identified in the region. Importantly, by combining the metagenomics data and thermodynamic modeling of this study with previously published isotopic and community composition data from the South African subsurface, we are able to demonstrate that Firmicutes-dominated communities are associated with a particular hydrogeologic environment, specifically the older, more saline and more reducing waters.