Microbial ecology within oligotrophic marine sediment is poorly understood, yet is critical for understanding geochemical cycles. Here, 16S rRNA sequences from RNA and DNA inform the structure of active and total microbial communities in oligotrophic sediment on the western flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Sequences identified as Bacillariophyta chloroplast were detected within DNA, but undetectable within RNA, suggesting preservation in 5.6-million-year-old sediment. Statistical analysis revealed that RNA-based microbial populations correlated significantly with nitrogen concentrations, whereas DNA-based populations did not correspond to measured geochemical analytes. Bioenergetic calculations determined which metabolisms could yield energy in situ, and found that denitrification, nitrification, and nitrogen fixation were all favorable. A metagenome was produced from one sample, and included genes mediating nitrogen redox processes. Nitrogen respiration by active bacteria is an important metabolic strategy in North Pond sediments, and could be widespread in the oligotrophic sedimentary biosphere.
Oceanic crust constitutes the largest aquifer system on Earth, and microbial activity in this environment has been inferred from various geochemical analyses. However, empirical documentation of microbial activity from subsurface basalts is still lacking, particularly in the cool (<25°C) regions of the crust, where are assumed to harbor active iron-oxidizing microbial communities. To test this hypothesis, we report the enrichment and isolation of crust-associated microorganisms from North Pond, a site of relatively young and cold basaltic basement on the western flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge that was sampled during Expedition 336 of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Enrichment experiments with different carbon (bicarbonate, acetate, methane) and nitrogen (nitrate and ammonium) sources revealed significant cell growth (one magnitude higher cell abundance), higher intracellular DNA content, and increased Fe3+/ΣFe ratios only when nitrogen substrates were added. Furthermore, a Marinobacter strain with neutrophilic iron-oxidizing capabilities was isolated from the basalt. This work reveals that basalt-associated microorganisms at North Pond had the potential for activity and that microbial growth could be stimulated by in vitro nitrogen addition. Furthermore, iron oxidation is supported as an important process for microbial communities in subsurface basalts from young and cool ridge flank basement.