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Exploring deep microbial life in coal-bearing sediment down to ~2.5 km below the ocean floor

Science  24 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6246, pp. 420-424
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6882

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A deep sleep in coal beds

Deep below the ocean floor, microorganisms from forest soils continue to thrive. Inagaki et al. analyzed the microbial communities in several drill cores off the coast of Japan, some sampling more than 2 km below the seafloor (see the Perspective by Huber). Although cell counts decreased with depth, deep coal beds harbored active communities of methanogenic bacteria. These communities were more similar to those found in forest soils than in other deep marine sediments.

Science, this issue p. 420; see also p. 376

Abstract

Microbial life inhabits deeply buried marine sediments, but the extent of this vast ecosystem remains poorly constrained. Here we provide evidence for the existence of microbial communities in ~40° to 60°C sediment associated with lignite coal beds at ~1.5 to 2.5 km below the seafloor in the Pacific Ocean off Japan. Microbial methanogenesis was indicated by the isotopic compositions of methane and carbon dioxide, biomarkers, cultivation data, and gas compositions. Concentrations of indigenous microbial cells below 1.5 km ranged from <10 to ~104 cells cm−3. Peak concentrations occurred in lignite layers, where communities differed markedly from shallower subseafloor communities and instead resembled organotrophic communities in forest soils. This suggests that terrigenous sediments retain indigenous community members tens of millions of years after burial in the seabed.

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