Awardee: Emily R. Estes (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Current Placement: Staff Scientist, International Ocean Discovery Program, Texas A&M University
Advisor: Colleen M. Hansel (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Amount: $33,000.00
Award Dates: June 1, 2016 — May 31, 2017


Sediment underlying ocean gyres receives minimal input of fresh organic matter yet sustains a small but active heterotrophic microbial community. The concentration and composition of the organic carbon (OC) available to this deep biosphere however is unknown. We analyzed the content and composition of OC in pelagic sediment in order to identify mechanism(s) that dictate the balance between OC preservation and utilization by microorganisms. Sediment cores from the North Atlantic gyre (KN223), South Pacific Gyre (Knox02-RR), and Peru Basin (IODP site 1231) allowed for a global comparison and a test of how sediment lithology and redox state affect OC preservation. OC was present in low concentrations in all samples (0.01—0.61%), at depths up to 112 meters below seafloor and estimated sediment ages of up to 50 million years. Synchrotron-based near edge X-ray absorption fine structure (NEXAFS) spectroscopy was conducted on over 100 samples, one of the first applications of NEXAFS to sedimentary environments. NEXAFS revealed an OC reservoir dominated by amide and carboxylic functionalities in a scaffolding of O-alkyl and aliphatic carbons. Detection of extractable, extracellular proteins supports this composition and suggests that sedimentary OC is protein-derived. This composition was common across all sites and depths, implicating physical rather than chemical mechanisms in OC preservation on long timescales. This study thereby points to physical access rather than energy or metabolic potential as a key constraint on subsurface heterotrophic life.