Globally, marine sediments are a vast repository of organic matter which is degraded through various microbial pathways, including polymer hydrolysis and monomer fermentation. The sources, abundances, and quality (i.e. labile or recalcitrant) of the organic matter and the composition of the microbial assemblages vary between sediments. Here, we examine new and previously published sediment metagenomes from the Baltic Sea and the nearby Kattegat to determine connections between geochemistry and the community potential to degrade organic carbon. Diverse organic matter hydrolysis encoding genes were present in sediments between 0.25 to 67 meters below seafloor, and were in higher relative abundances in those sediments that contained more organic matter. New analysis of previously published metatranscriptomes demonstrated that many of these genes were transcribed in two organic-rich Holocene sediments. Some of the variation in deduced pathways in the metagenomes correlated to carbon content and depositional conditions. Fermentation-related genes were found in all samples, and encoded for multiple fermentation strategies. Notably, genes conferring alcohol metabolism were amongst the most abundant of these genes, indicating this is an important but underappreciated aspect of sediment carbon cycling. This study is a step towards a more complete understanding of microbial food webs and the impacts of depositional facies on present sedimentary microbial communities.
Subsurface microbial communities undertake many terminal electron-accepting processes, often simultaneously. Using a tritium-based assay, we measured the potential hydrogen oxidation catalyzed by hydrogenase enzymes in several subsurface sedimentary environments (Lake Van, Barents Sea, Equatorial Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico) with different predominant electron-acceptors. Hydrogenases constitute a diverse family of enzymes expressed by microorganisms that utilize molecular hydrogen as a metabolic substrate, product, or intermediate. The assay reveals the potential for utilizing molecular hydrogen and allows qualitative detection of microbial activity irrespective of the predominant electron-accepting process. Because the method only requires samples frozen immediately after recovery, the assay can be used for identifying microbial activity in subsurface ecosystems without the need to preserve live material. We measured potential hydrogen oxidation rates in all samples from multiple depths at several sites that collectively span a wide range of environmental conditions and biogeochemical zones. Potential activity normalized to total cell abundance ranges over five orders of magnitude and varies, dependent upon the predominant terminal electron acceptor. Lowest per-cell potential rates characterize the zone of nitrate reduction and highest per-cell potential rates occur in the methanogenic zone. Possible reasons for this relationship to predominant electron acceptor include (i) increasing importance of fermentation in successively deeper biogeochemical zones and (ii) adaptation of H2ases to successively higher concentrations of H2 in successively deeper zones.
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.