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.
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.