Sparse microbial populations persist from seafloor to basement in the slowly accumulating oxic sediment of the oligotrophic South Pacific Gyre (SPG). The physiological status of these communities, including their substrate metabolism, is previously unconstrained. Here we show that diverse aerobic members of communities in SPG sediments (4.3‒101.5 Ma) are capable of readily incorporating carbon and nitrogen substrates and dividing. Most of the 6986 individual cells analyzed with nanometer-scale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) actively incorporated isotope-labeled substrates. Many cells responded rapidly to incubation conditions, increasing total numbers by 4 orders of magnitude and taking up labeled carbon and nitrogen within 68 days after incubation. The response was generally faster (on average, 3.09 times) for nitrogen incorporation than for carbon incorporation. In contrast, anaerobic microbes were only minimally revived from this oxic sediment. Our results suggest that microbial communities widely distributed in organic-poor abyssal sediment consist mainly of aerobes that retain their metabolic potential under extremely low-energy conditions for up to 101.5 Ma.

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