Frontiers in Microbiology
Published: July 15, 2015
C-DEBI Contribution Number: 274


To better understand the origin, evolution, and extent of life, we seek to determine the minimum flux of energy needed for organisms to remain viable. Despite the difficulties associated with direct measurement of the power limits for life, it is possible to use existing data and models to constrain the minimum flux of energy required to sustain microorganisms. Here, a we apply a bioenergetic model to a well characterized marine sedimentary environment in order to quantify the amount of power organisms use in an ultralow-energy setting. In particular, we show a direct link between power consumption in this environment and the amount of biomass (cells cm-3) found in it. The power supply resulting from the aerobic degradation of particular organic carbon (POC) at IODP Site U1370 in the South Pacific Gyre is between ∼10-12 and 10-16 W cm-3. The rates of POC degradation are calculated using a continuum model while Gibbs energies have been computed using geochemical data describing the sediment as a function of depth. Although laboratory-determined values of maintenance power do a poor job of representing the amount of biomass in U1370 sediments, the number of cells per cm-3 can be well-captured using a maintenance power, 190 zW cell-1, two orders of magnitude lower than the lowest value reported in the literature. In addition, we have combined cell counts and calculated power supplies to determine that, on average, the microorganisms at Site U1370 require 50–3500 zW cell-1, with most values under ∼300 zW cell-1. Furthermore, we carried out an analysis of the absolute minimum power requirement for a single cell to remain viable to be on the order of 1 zW cell-1.