Bacterial communities associated with subsurface geochemical processes in continental serpentinite springs.
ABSTRACT: Reactions associated with the geochemical process of serpentinization can generate copious quantities of hydrogen and low-molecular-weight organic carbon compounds, which may provide energy and nutrients to sustain subsurface microbial communities independently of the photosynthetically supported surface biosphere. Previous microbial ecology studies have tested this hypothesis in deep sea hydrothermal vents, such as the Lost City hydrothermal field. This study applied similar methods, including molecular fingerprinting and tag sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene, to ultrabasic continental springs emanating from serpentinizing ultramafic rocks. These molecular surveys were linked with geochemical measurements of the fluids in an interdisciplinary approach designed to distinguish potential subsurface organisms from those derived from surface habitats. The betaproteobacterial genus Hydrogenophaga was identified as a likely inhabitant of transition zones where hydrogen-enriched subsurface fluids mix with oxygenated surface water. The Firmicutes genus Erysipelothrix was most strongly correlated with geochemical factors indicative of subsurface fluids and was identified as the most likely inhabitant of a serpentinization-powered subsurface biosphere. Both of these taxa have been identified in multiple hydrogen-enriched subsurface habitats worldwide, and the results of this study contribute to an emerging biogeographic pattern in which Betaproteobacteria occur in near-surface mixing zones and Firmicutes are present in deeper, anoxic subsurface habitats.
Project description:The production of hydrogen and methane by geochemical reactions associated with the serpentinization of ultramafic rocks can potentially support subsurface microbial ecosystems independent of the photosynthetic biosphere. Methanogenic and methanotrophic microorganisms are abundant in marine hydrothermal systems heavily influenced by serpentinization, but evidence for methane-cycling archaea and bacteria in continental serpentinite springs has been limited. This report provides metagenomic and experimental evidence for active methanogenesis and methanotrophy by microbial communities in serpentinite springs of the Voltri Massif, Italy. Methanogens belonging to family Methanobacteriaceae and methanotrophic bacteria belonging to family Methylococcaceae were heavily enriched in three ultrabasic springs (pH 12). Metagenomic data also suggest the potential for hydrogen oxidation, hydrogen production, carbon fixation, fermentation, and organic acid metabolism in the ultrabasic springs. The predicted metabolic capabilities are consistent with an active subsurface ecosystem supported by energy and carbon liberated by geochemical reactions within the serpentinite rocks of the Voltri Massif.
Project description:Despite their potential importance as analogs of primitive microbial metabolisms, the knowledge of the structure and functioning of the deep ecosystems associated with serpentinizing environments is hampered by the lack of accessibility to relevant systems. These hyperalkaline environments are depleted in dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), making the carbon sources and assimilation pathways in the associated ecosystems highly enigmatic. The Prony Bay Hydrothermal Field (PHF) is an active serpentinization site where, similar to Lost City (Mid-Atlantic Ridge), high-pH fluids rich in H2 and CH4 are discharged from carbonate chimneys at the seafloor, but in a shallower lagoonal environment. This study aimed to characterize the subsurface microbial ecology of this environment by focusing on the earliest stages of chimney construction, dominated by the discharge of hydrothermal fluids of subseafloor origin. By jointly examining the mineralogy and the microbial diversity of the conduits of juvenile edifices at the micrometric scale, we find a central role of uncultivated bacteria belonging to the Firmicutes in the ecology of the PHF. These bacteria, along with members of the phyla Acetothermia and Omnitrophica, are identified as the first chimneys inhabitants before archaeal Methanosarcinales. They are involved in the construction and early consolidation of the carbonate structures via organomineralization processes. Their predominance in the most juvenile and nascent hydrothermal chimneys, and their affiliation with environmental subsurface microorganisms, indicate that they are likely discharged with hydrothermal fluids from the subseafloor. They may thus be representative of endolithic serpentinization-based ecosystems, in an environment where DIC is limited. In contrast, heterotrophic and fermentative microorganisms may consume organic compounds from the abiotic by-products of serpentinization processes and/or from life in the deeper subsurface. We thus propose that the Firmicutes identified at PHF may have a versatile metabolism with the capability to use diverse organic compounds from biological or abiotic origin. From that perspective, this study sheds new light on the structure of deep microbial communities living at the energetic edge in serpentinites and may provide an alternative model of the earliest metabolisms.
Project description:Arguments for an abiotic origin of low-molecular weight organic compounds in deep-sea hot springs are compelling owing to implications for the sustenance of deep biosphere microbial communities and their potential role in the origin of life. Theory predicts that warm H2-rich fluids, like those emanating from serpentinizing hydrothermal systems, create a favorable thermodynamic drive for the abiotic generation of organic compounds from inorganic precursors. Here, we constrain two distinct reaction pathways for abiotic organic synthesis in the natural environment at the Von Damm hydrothermal field and delineate spatially where inorganic carbon is converted into bioavailable reduced carbon. We reveal that carbon transformation reactions in a single system can progress over hours, days, and up to thousands of years. Previous studies have suggested that CH4 and higher hydrocarbons in ultramafic hydrothermal systems were dependent on H2 generation during active serpentinization. Rather, our results indicate that CH4 found in vent fluids is formed in H2-rich fluid inclusions, and higher n-alkanes may likely be derived from the same source. This finding implies that, in contrast with current paradigms, these compounds may form independently of actively circulating serpentinizing fluids in ultramafic-influenced systems. Conversely, widespread production of formate by ΣCO2 reduction at Von Damm occurs rapidly during shallow subsurface mixing of the same fluids, which may support anaerobic methanogenesis. Our finding of abiogenic formate in deep-sea hot springs has significant implications for microbial life strategies in the present-day deep biosphere as well as early life on Earth and beyond.
Project description:Ultramafic rocks in the Earth's mantle represent a tremendous reservoir of carbon and reducing power. Upon tectonic uplift and exposure to fluid flow, serpentinization of these materials generates copious energy, sustains abiogenic synthesis of organic molecules, and releases hydrogen gas (H(2)). In order to assess the potential for microbial H(2) utilization fueled by serpentinization, we conducted metagenomic surveys of a marine serpentinite-hosted hydrothermal chimney (at the Lost City hydrothermal field) and two continental serpentinite-hosted alkaline seeps (at the Tablelands Ophiolite, Newfoundland). Novel [NiFe]-hydrogenase sequences were identified at both the marine and continental sites, and in both cases, phylogenetic analyses indicated aerobic, potentially autotrophic Betaproteobacteria belonging to order Burkholderiales as the most likely H(2)-oxidizers. Both sites also yielded metagenomic evidence for microbial H(2) production catalyzed by [FeFe]-hydrogenases in anaerobic Gram-positive bacteria belonging to order Clostridiales. In addition, we present metagenomic evidence at both sites for aerobic carbon monoxide utilization and anaerobic carbon fixation via the Wood-Ljungdahl pathway. In general, our results point to H(2)-oxidizing Betaproteobacteria thriving in shallow, oxic-anoxic transition zones and the anaerobic Clostridia thriving in anoxic, deep subsurface habitats. These data demonstrate the feasibility of metagenomic investigations into novel subsurface habitats via surface-exposed seeps and indicate the potential for H(2)-powered primary production in serpentinite-hosted subsurface habitats.
Project description:Geological sources of H2 and abiotic CH4 have had a critical role in the evolution of our planet and the development of life and sustainability of the deep subsurface biosphere. Yet the origins of these sources are largely unconstrained. Hydration of mantle rocks, or serpentinization, is widely recognized to produce H2 and favour the abiotic genesis of CH4 in shallow settings. However, deeper sources of H2 and abiotic CH4 are missing from current models, which mainly invoke more oxidized fluids at convergent margins. Here we combine data from exhumed subduction zone high-pressure rocks and thermodynamic modelling to show that deep serpentinization (40-80?km) generates significant amounts of H2 and abiotic CH4, as well as H2S and NH3. Our results suggest that subduction, worldwide, hosts large sources of deep H2 and abiotic CH4, potentially providing energy to the overlying subsurface biosphere in the forearc regions of convergent margins.
Project description:Serpentinization is a low-temperature metamorphic process by which ultramafic rock chemically reacts with water. Such reactions provide energy and materials that may be harnessed by chemosynthetic microbial communities at hydrothermal springs and in the subsurface. However, the biogeochemistry mediated by microbial populations that inhabit these environments is understudied and complicated by overlapping biotic and abiotic processes. We applied metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, and untargeted metabolomics techniques to environmental samples taken from the Coast Range Ophiolite Microbial Observatory (CROMO), a subsurface observatory consisting of 12 wells drilled into the ultramafic and serpentinite mélange of the Coast Range Ophiolite in California. Using a combination of DNA and RNA sequence data and mass spectrometry data, we found evidence for several carbon fixation and assimilation strategies, including the Calvin-Benson-Bassham cycle, the reverse tricarboxylic acid cycle, the reductive acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA) pathway, and methylotrophy, in the microbial communities inhabiting the serpentinite-hosted aquifer. Our data also suggest that the microbial inhabitants of CROMO use products of the serpentinization process, including methane and formate, as carbon sources in a hyperalkaline environment where dissolved inorganic carbon is unavailable.IMPORTANCE This study describes the potential metabolic pathways by which microbial communities in a serpentinite-influenced aquifer may produce biomass from the products of serpentinization. Serpentinization is a widespread geochemical process, taking place over large regions of the seafloor and at continental margins, where ancient seafloor has accreted onto the continents. Because of the difficulty in delineating abiotic and biotic processes in these environments, major questions remain related to microbial contributions to the carbon cycle and physiological adaptation to serpentinite habitats. This research explores multiple mechanisms of carbon fixation and assimilation in serpentinite-hosted microbial communities.
Project description:The hydrothermal mats, mounds, and chimneys of the southern Guaymas Basin are the surface expression of complex subsurface hydrothermal circulation patterns. In this overview, we document the most frequently visited features of this hydrothermal area with photographs, temperature measurements, and selected geochemical data; many of these distinct habitats await characterization of their microbial communities and activities. Microprofiler deployments on microbial mats and hydrothermal sediments show their steep geochemical and thermal gradients at millimeter-scale vertical resolution. Mapping these hydrothermal features and sampling locations within the southern Guaymas Basin suggest linkages to underlying shallow sills and heat flow gradients. Recognizing the inherent spatial limitations of much current Guaymas Basin sampling calls for comprehensive surveys of the wider spreading region.
Project description:The deep subsurface is an enormous repository of microbial life. However, the metabolic capabilities of these microorganisms and the degree to which they are dependent on surface processes are largely unknown. Due to the logistical difficulty of sampling and inherent heterogeneity, the microbial populations of the terrestrial subsurface are poorly characterized. In an effort to better understand the biogeochemistry of deep terrestrial habitats, we evaluate the energetic yield of chemolithotrophic metabolisms and microbial diversity in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in the former Homestake Gold Mine, SD, USA. Geochemical data, energetic modeling, and DNA sequencing were combined with principle component analysis to describe this deep (down to 8100 ft below surface), terrestrial environment. SURF provides access into an iron-rich Paleoproterozoic metasedimentary deposit that contains deeply circulating groundwater. Geochemical analyses of subsurface fluids reveal enormous geochemical diversity ranging widely in salinity, oxidation state (ORP 330 to -328 mV), and concentrations of redox sensitive species (e.g., Fe(2+) from near 0 to 6.2 mg/L and ? S(2-) from 7 to 2778?g/L). As a direct result of this compositional buffet, Gibbs energy calculations reveal an abundance of energy for microorganisms from the oxidation of sulfur, iron, nitrogen, methane, and manganese. Pyrotag DNA sequencing reveals diverse communities of chemolithoautotrophs, thermophiles, aerobic and anaerobic heterotrophs, and numerous uncultivated clades. Extrapolated across the mine footprint, these data suggest a complex spatial mosaic of subsurface primary productivity that is in good agreement with predicted energy yields. Notably, we report Gibbs energy normalized both per mole of reaction and per kg fluid (energy density) and find the later to be more consistent with observed physiologies and environmental conditions. Further application of this approach will significantly expand our understanding of the deep terrestrial biosphere.
Project description:Serpentinization is a widespread geochemical process associated with aqueous alteration of ultramafic rocks that produces abundant reductants (H2 and CH4) for life to exploit, but also potentially challenging conditions, including high pH, limited availability of terminal electron acceptors, and low concentrations of inorganic carbon. As a consequence, past studies of serpentinites have reported low cellular abundances and limited microbial diversity. Establishment of the Coast Range Ophiolite Microbial Observatory (California, U.S.A.) allowed a comparison of microbial communities and physicochemical parameters directly within serpentinization-influenced subsurface aquifers. Samples collected from seven wells were subjected to a range of analyses, including solute and gas chemistry, microbial diversity by 16S rRNA gene sequencing, and metabolic potential by shotgun metagenomics, in an attempt to elucidate what factors drive microbial activities in serpentinite habitats. This study describes the first comprehensive interdisciplinary analysis of microbial communities in hyperalkaline groundwater directly accessed by boreholes into serpentinite rocks. Several environmental factors, including pH, methane, and carbon monoxide, were strongly associated with the predominant subsurface microbial communities. A single operational taxonomic unit (OTU) of Betaproteobacteria and a few OTUs of Clostridia were the almost exclusive inhabitants of fluids exhibiting the most serpentinized character. Metagenomes from these extreme samples contained abundant sequences encoding proteins associated with hydrogen metabolism, carbon monoxide oxidation, carbon fixation, and acetogenesis. Metabolic pathways encoded by Clostridia and Betaproteobacteria, in particular, are likely to play important roles in the ecosystems of serpentinizing groundwater. These data provide a basis for further biogeochemical studies of key processes in serpentinite subsurface environments.
Project description:The Lost City hydrothermal field is a dramatic example of the biological potential of serpentinization. Microbial life is prevalent throughout the Lost City chimneys, powered by the hydrogen gas and organic molecules produced by serpentinization and its associated geochemical reactions. Microbial life in the serpentinite subsurface below the Lost City chimneys, however, is unlikely to be as dense or active. The marine serpentinite subsurface poses serious challenges for microbial activity, including low porosities, the combination of stressors of elevated temperature, high pH and a lack of bioavailable ?CO2. A better understanding of the biological opportunities and challenges in serpentinizing systems would provide important insights into the total habitable volume of Earth's crust and for the potential of the origin and persistence of life in Earth's subsurface environments. Furthermore, the limitations to life in serpentinizing subsurface environments on Earth have significant implications for the habitability of subsurface environments on ocean worlds such as Europa and Enceladus. Here, we review the requirements and limitations of life in serpentinizing systems, informed by our research at the Lost City and the underwater mountain on which it resides, the Atlantis Massif. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue 'Serpentinite in the Earth System'.