Weathered crude oil sank to the seafloor following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, removing this oil from further physical and photo-chemical degradation processes and leaving benthic processes as the mechanisms for altering and remediating this hydrocarbon source. To quantify potential microbial oil degradation rates at the seafloor, and associated changes in sediment microbial community structure and pore fluid composition, we used a benthic lander system to deploy novel sediment flow-through chambers at a natural hydrocarbon seep in the Gulf of Mexico (at a depth of 1226 m in lease block GC600) roughly 265 km southwest of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead (at 1500 m depth). Sediment amended with 20% unweathered crude oil had elevated rates of sulfate reduction over the course of the 5-month-long experiment as compared to an unamended control, yielding potential rates of sulfate reduction (600–800 mmol m–2 d–1) among the highest measured in hydrocarbon-influenced seafloor sediment. Oil amendment also stimulated methane production towards the end of the experiment, and led to slightly higher cell densities without significant changes in microbial community structure, based on 16S rRNA gene sequence libraries and fatty acid profiles. Assuming a link between sulfate reduction and hydrocarbon degradation, these results suggest that electron acceptor availability may become limiting in heavily oiled deep-sea environments, resulting in minimal degradation of deposited oil. This study provides unique data on seafloor sediment responses to oil deposition, and reveals the value of using observatories to fill the gap in understanding deep-sea microbial processes, especially for ephemeral and stochastic events such as oil spills.
Oceanic crust is a massive potential habitat for microbial life on Earth, yet our understanding of this ecosystem is limited due to difficulty in access. In particular, measurements of rates of microbial activity are sparse. We used stable carbon isotope incubations of crustal samples, coupled with functional gene analyses, to examine the potential for carbon fixation on oceanic crust. Both seafloor-exposed and subseafloor basalts were recovered from different mid-ocean ridge and hot spot environments (i.e., the Juan de Fuca Ridge, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the Loihi Seamount) and incubated with 13C-labeled bicarbonate. Seafloor-exposed basalts revealed incorporation of 13C-label into organic matter over time, though the degree of incorporation was heterogeneous. The incorporation of 13C into biomass was inconclusive in subseafloor basalts. Translating these measurements into potential rates of carbon fixation indicated that 0.1–10 nmol C g-1rock d-1 could be fixed by seafloor-exposed rocks. When scaled to the global production of oceanic crust, this suggests carbon fixation rates of 109–1012 g C year-1, which matches earlier predictions based on thermodynamic calculations. Functional gene analyses indicate that the Calvin cycle is likely the dominant biochemical mechanism for carbon fixation in basalt-hosted biofilms, although the reductive acetyl-CoA pathway and reverse TCA cycle likely play some role in net carbon fixation. These results provide empirical evidence for autotrophy in oceanic crust, suggesting that basalt-hosted autotrophy could be a significant contributor of organic matter in this remote and vast environment.