International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 370 aimed to explore the limits of life in the deep subseafloor biosphere at a location where temperature increases with depth at an intermediate rate and exceeds the known temperature maximum of microbial life (~120°C) at the sediment/basement interface ~1.2 km below the seafloor. Drilling Site C0023 is located in the vicinity of Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Sites 808 and 1174 at the protothrust zone in the Nankai Trough off Cape Muroto at a water depth of 4776 m. ODP Leg 190 in 2000, revealed the presence of microbial cells at Site 1174 to a depth of ~600 meters below seafloor (mbsf), which corresponds to an estimated temperature of ~70°C, and reliably identified a single zone of higher cell concentrations just above the décollement at around 800 mbsf, where temperature presumably reached 90°C; no cell count data was reported for other sediment layers in the 70°–120°C range, because the limit of manual cell count for low-biomass samples was not high enough. With the establishment of Site C0023, we aimed to detect and investigate the presence or absence of life and biological processes at the biotic–abiotic transition with unprecedented analytical sensitivity and precision. Expedition 370 was the first expedition dedicated to subseafloor microbiology that achieved time-critical processing and analyses of deep biosphere samples by simultaneous shipboard and shore-based investigations.
Our primary objectives during Expedition 370 were to study the relationship between the deep subseafloor biosphere and temperature. We aimed to comprehensively study the factors that control biomass, activity, and diversity of microbial communities in a subseafloor environment where temperatures increase from ~2°C at the seafloor to ~120°C at the sediment/basement interface and thus likely encompasses the biotic–abiotic transition zone. We also aimed to determine geochemical, geophysical, and hydrogeological characteristics in sediment and the underlying basaltic basement and elucidate if the supply of fluids containing thermogenic and/or geogenic nutrient and energy substrates may support subseafloor microbial communities in the Nankai accretionary complex.
To address these primary scientific objectives and questions, we penetrated 1180 m and recovered 112 cores across the sediment/basalt interface. More than 13,000 samples were collected, and selected samples were transferred to the Kochi Core Center by helicopter for simultaneous microbiological sampling and analysis in laboratories with a super-clean environment. Following the coring operations, a temperature observatory with 13 thermistor sensors was installed in the borehole to 863 mbsf.
Microbial life inhabits deeply buried marine sediments, but the extent of this vast ecosystem remains poorly constrained. Here we provide evidence for the existence of microbial communities in ~40° to 60°C sediment associated with lignite coal beds at ~1.5 to 2.5 km below the seafloor in the Pacific Ocean off Japan. Microbial methanogenesis was indicated by the isotopic compositions of methane and carbon dioxide, biomarkers, cultivation data, and gas compositions. Concentrations of indigenous microbial cells below 1.5 km ranged from <10 to ~104 cells cm−3. Peak concentrations occurred in lignite layers, where communities differed markedly from shallower subseafloor communities and instead resembled organotrophic communities in forest soils. This suggests that terrigenous sediments retain indigenous community members tens of millions of years after burial in the seabed.