Aerobic Microbial Respiration in 86-Million-Year-Old Deep-Sea Red Clay

Science  18 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6083, pp. 922-925
DOI: 10.1126/science.1219424

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Deep Breathing

Living microbes have been discovered many meters into marine sediments. On a cruise in the North Pacific Gyre, Røy et al. (p. 922) discovered that oxygen occurred for tens of meters into the sediment. The bacteria living in these sediments were respiring the oxygen but at a slower rate than the supply of organic material dropping out of the water column, allowing these ancient deep marine sediments to remain oxygenated. Modeling showed that the rate of respiration of specific carbon decreased as a function of sediment depth, that is, its age. Thus aerobic metabolism can persist in deep marine sediments.


Microbial communities can subsist at depth in marine sediments without fresh supply of organic matter for millions of years. At threshold sedimentation rates of 1 millimeter per 1000 years, the low rates of microbial community metabolism in the North Pacific Gyre allow sediments to remain oxygenated tens of meters below the sea floor. We found that the oxygen respiration rates dropped from 10 micromoles of O2 liter−1 year−1 near the sediment-water interface to 0.001 micromoles of O2 liter−1 year−1 at 30-meter depth within 86 million-year-old sediment. The cell-specific respiration rate decreased with depth but stabilized at around 10−3 femtomoles of O2 cell−1 day−1 10 meters below the seafloor. This result indicated that the community size is controlled by the rate of carbon oxidation and thereby by the low available energy flux.

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