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Temperature limits to deep subseafloor life in the Nankai Trough subduction zone

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Science  04 Dec 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6521, pp. 1230-1234
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd7934

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Deep, hot, and more alive than we thought

Marine sediments represent a massive microbial ecosystem, but we still do not fully understand what factors shape and limit life underneath the seafloor. Analyzing samples from a subduction zone off the coast of Japan, Heuer et al. found that microbial life, in particular bacterial vegetative cells, decreases as depth and temperature increases down to ∼600 meters below the seafloor, corresponding to temperatures of ∼70°C. Below this limit, endospores are common—a remnant, and a potential reservoir, of bacterial life. Deeper still is a sterile zone, and below 1000 meters is a scalding realm populated by vegetative cells. At such great depths, high concentrations of acetate and sulfate coexist, and there are also signs of hyperthermophilic methanogenesis. These data provide a fascinating window into an extreme and inhospitable environment that nonetheless supports microbial life.

Science, this issue p. 1230

Abstract

Microorganisms in marine subsurface sediments substantially contribute to global biomass. Sediments warmer than 40°C account for roughly half the marine sediment volume, but the processes mediated by microbial populations in these hard-to-access environments are poorly understood. We investigated microbial life in up to 1.2-kilometer-deep and up to 120°C hot sediments in the Nankai Trough subduction zone. Above 45°C, concentrations of vegetative cells drop two orders of magnitude and endospores become more than 6000 times more abundant than vegetative cells. Methane is biologically produced and oxidized until sediments reach 80° to 85°C. In 100° to 120°C sediments, isotopic evidence and increased cell concentrations demonstrate the activity of acetate-degrading hyperthermophiles. Above 45°C, populated zones alternate with zones up to 192 meters thick where microbes were undetectable.

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