Awardee: Leah D. Brandt (Pennsylvania State University)
Current Placement: Senior Laboratory Specialist, University of Pittsburgh
Advisor: Christopher H. House (Pennsylvania State University)
Amount: $64,000.00
Award Dates: June 1, 2014 — May 31, 2016


The Iheya North Hydrothermal Field in the Okinawa Backarc Basin represents an ideal environment in which to investigate the biotic temperature fringe of microbial life at depth because of its subsurface hydrothermal activity within its continental margin-type sediment profile. Geographically, the Okinawa Backarc Basin is situated along a continental margin, which is a sediment profile type commonly sampled and studied across the seafloor (e.g. Peru Margin, Costa Rica Margin, Cascadia Margin). The hydrothermal network within the subsurface here supplies an additional temperature obstacle to microbial life existing in the sediments. In particular, the sediment profile at Site C0014 exhibits a transition from hemipelagic ooze with pumiceous volcaniclastic sediments and low temperature (4°C) to a hydrothermally altered sequence of clays within the top ~10 mbsf of sediment. Temperature measurements indicate a gradient of approximately 3°C/m, which is roughly an order of magnitude greater than continental margin sites (e.g. Cascadia Margin, IODP 311 and Costa Rica Margin, IODP 344), but is more gradual than intense, centimeter-scale gradients from other hot, surface sediments. We have focused on the application of culture-independent, molecular methods to understand taxonomic and functional characteristics through this hydrothermal gradient. Confidence in DNA recovery suggests a microbial biosphere extent of approximately 15 mbsf (55°C). Results from both 16S rRNA gene surveys and metagenomics analyses suggest a temperature-dependent stratigraphy of taxonomic and functional adaptations between the shallowest and deepest sample horizons. Cosmopolitan marine subsurface bacterial and archaeal taxa are present throughout the top 10 mbsf, whereas, hyperthermophilic heterotrophic as well as thermophilic anaerobic methanotrophic archaea appear in varying local abundances in deeper, hydrothermal clay horizons.