The Possible Emergence of Life and Differentiation of a Shallow Biosphere on Irradiated Icy Worlds: The Example of Europa.
ABSTRACT: Irradiated ice-covered ocean worlds with rocky mafic mantles may provide the conditions needed to drive the emergence and maintenance of life. Alkaline hydrothermal springs-relieving the geophysical, thermal, and chemical disequilibria between oceans and tidally stressed crusts-could generate inorganic barriers to the otherwise uncontrolled and kinetically disfavored oxidation of hydrothermal hydrogen and methane. Ionic gradients imposed across these inorganic barriers, comprising iron oxyhydroxides and sulfides, could drive the hydrogenation of carbon dioxide and the oxidation of methane through thermodynamically favorable metabolic pathways leading to early life-forms. In such chemostatic environments, fuels may eventually outweigh oxidants. Ice-covered oceans are primarily heated from below, creating convection that could transport putative microbial cells and cellular cooperatives upward to congregate beneath an ice shell, potentially giving rise to a highly focused shallow biosphere. It is here where electron acceptors, ultimately derived from the irradiated surface, could be delivered to such life-forms through exchange with the icy surface. Such zones would act as "electron disposal units" for the biosphere, and occupants might be transferred toward the surface by buoyant diapirs and even entrained into plumes. Key Words: Biofilms-Europa-Extraterrestrial life-Hydrothermal systems. Astrobiology 17, 1265-1273.
Project description:The origin and evolution of the faunas inhabiting deep-sea hydrothermal vents and methane seeps have been debated for decades. These faunas rely on a local source of sulfide and other reduced chemicals for nutrition, which spawned the hypothesis that their evolutionary history is independent from that of photosynthesis-based food chains and instead driven by extinction events caused by deep-sea anoxia. Here I use the fossil record of seep molluscs to show that trends in body size, relative abundance and epifaunal/infaunal ratios track current estimates of seawater sulfate concentrations through the last 150 Myr. Furthermore, the two main faunal turnovers during this time interval coincide with major changes in seawater sulfate concentrations. Because sulfide at seeps originates mostly from seawater sulfate, variations in sulfate concentrations should directly affect the base of the food chain of this ecosystem and are thus the likely driver of the observed macroecologic and evolutionary patterns. The results imply that the methane-seep fauna evolved largely independently from developments and mass extinctions affecting the photosynthesis-based biosphere and add to the growing body of evidence that the chemical evolution of the oceans had a major impact on the evolution of marine life.
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:Subseafloor mixing of high-temperature hot-spring fluids with cold seawater creates intermediate-temperature diffuse fluids that are replete with potential chemical energy. This energy can be harnessed by a chemosynthetic biosphere that permeates hydrothermal regions on Earth. Shifts in the abundance of redox-reactive species in diffuse fluids are often interpreted to reflect the direct influence of subseafloor microbial activity on fluid geochemical budgets. Here, we examine hydrothermal fluids venting at 44 to 149 °C at the Piccard hydrothermal field that span the canonical 122 °C limit to life, and thus provide a rare opportunity to study the transition between habitable and uninhabitable environments. In contrast with previous studies, we show that hydrocarbons are contributed by biomass pyrolysis, while abiotic sulfate (SO4 2-) reduction produces large depletions in H2 The latter process consumes energy that could otherwise support key metabolic strategies employed by the subseafloor biosphere. Available Gibbs free energy is reduced by 71 to 86% across the habitable temperature range for both hydrogenotrophic SO4 2- reduction to hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction to methane (CH4). The abiotic H2 sink we identify has implications for the productivity of subseafloor microbial ecosystems and is an important process to consider within models of H2 production and consumption in young oceanic crust.
Project description:The Earth's crust hosts a subsurface, dark, and oligotrophic biosphere that is poorly understood in terms of the energy supporting its biomass production and impact on food webs at the Earth's surface. Dark oligotrophic volcanic ecosystems (DOVEs) are good environments for investigations of life in the absence of sunlight as they are poor in organics, rich in chemical reactants and well known for chemical exchange with Earth's surface systems. Ice caves near the summit of Mt. Erebus (Antarctica) offer DOVEs in a polar alpine environment that is starved in organics and with oxygenated hydrothermal circulation in highly reducing host rock. We surveyed the microbial communities using PCR, cloning, sequencing and analysis of the small subunit (16S) ribosomal and Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate Carboxylase/Oxygenase (RubisCO) genes in sediment samples from three different caves, two that are completely dark and one that receives snow-filtered sunlight seasonally. The microbial communities in all three caves are composed primarily of Bacteria and fungi; Archaea were not detected. The bacterial communities from these ice caves display low phylogenetic diversity, but with a remarkable diversity of RubisCO genes including new deeply branching Form I clades, implicating the Calvin-Benson-Bassham (CBB) cycle as a pathway of CO2 fixation. The microbial communities in one of the dark caves, Warren Cave, which has a remarkably low phylogenetic diversity, were analyzed in more detail to gain a possible perspective on the energetic basis of the microbial ecosystem in the cave. Atmospheric carbon (CO2 and CO), including from volcanic emissions, likely supplies carbon and/or some of the energy requirements of chemoautotrophic microbial communities in Warren Cave and probably other Mt. Erebus ice caves. Our work casts a first glimpse at Mt. Erebus ice caves as natural laboratories for exploring carbon, energy and nutrient sources in the subsurface biosphere and the nutritional limits on life.
Project description:The Lost City Hydrothermal Field, an ultramafic-hosted system located 15 km west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has experienced at least 30,000 years of hydrothermal activity. Previous studies have shown that its carbonate chimneys form by mixing of approximately 90 degrees C, pH 9-11 hydrothermal fluids and cold seawater. Flow of methane and hydrogen-rich hydrothermal fluids in the porous interior chimney walls supports archaeal biofilm communities dominated by a single phylotype of Methanosarcinales. In this study, we have extensively sampled the carbonate-hosted archaeal and bacterial communities by obtaining sequences of >200,000 amplicons of the 16S rRNA V6 region and correlated the results with isotopic ((230)Th) ages of the chimneys over a 1,200-year period. Rare sequences in young chimneys were commonly more abundant in older chimneys, indicating that members of the rare biosphere can become dominant members of the ecosystem when environmental conditions change. These results suggest that a long history of selection over many cycles of chimney growth has resulted in numerous closely related species at Lost City, each of which is preadapted to a particular set of reoccurring environmental conditions. Because of the unique characteristics of the Lost City Hydrothermal Field, these data offer an unprecedented opportunity to study the dynamics of a microbial ecosystem's rare biosphere over a thousand-year time scale.
Project description:Numerous studies on marine prokaryotic communities have postulated that a process of anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) coupled with sulfate reduction (SR) is the main methane sink in the world's oceans. AOM has also been reported in the deep biosphere. But the responses of the primary microbial players in eliciting changes in geochemical environments, specifically in methane and sulfate supplies, have yet to be fully elucidated. Marine mud volcanoes (MVs) expel a complex fluid mixture of which methane is the primary component, forming an environment in which AOM is a common phenomenon. In this context, we attempted to identify how the prokaryotic community would respond to changes in methane and sulfate intensities, which often occur in MV environments in the form of eruptions, diffusions or seepage. We applied an integrated approach, including (i) biochemical surveys of pore water originated from MV, (ii) in vitro incubation of mud breccia, and (iii) prokaryotic community structure analysis. Two distinct AOM regions were clearly detected. One is related to the sulfate methane transition zone (SMTZ) at depth of 30-55 cm below the sea floor (bsf); the second is at 165-205 cm bsf with ten times higher rates of AOM and SR. This finding contrasts with the sulfide concentrations in pore waters and supports the suggestion that potential AOM activity below the SMTZ might be an important methane sink that is largely ignored or underestimated in oceanic methane budget calculations. Moreover, the incubation conditions below the SMTZ favor the growth of methanotrophic archaeal group ANME-2 compared to ANME-1, and promote the rapid growth and high diversity of bacterial communities. These incubation conditions also promote the increase of richness in bacterial communities. Our results provide direct evidence of the mechanisms by which deep AOM processes can affect carbon cycling in the deep biosphere and global methane biochemistry.
Project description:Since its description from the Galapagos Rift in the mid-1980s, Archinome rosacea has been recorded at hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Only recently was a second species described from the Pacific Antarctic Ridge. We inferred the identities and evolutionary relationships of Archinome representatives sampled from across the hydrothermal vent range of the genus, which is now extended to cold methane seeps. Species delimitation using mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) recovered up to six lineages, whereas concatenated datasets (COI, 16S, 28S and ITS1) supported only four or five of these as clades. Morphological approaches alone were inconclusive to verify the identities of species owing to the lack of discrete diagnostic characters. We recognize five Archinome species, with three that are new to science. The new species, designated based on molecular evidence alone, include: Archinome levinae n. sp., which occurs at both vents and seeps in the east Pacific, Archinome tethyana n. sp., which inhabits Atlantic vents and Archinome jasoni n. sp., also present in the Atlantic, and whose distribution extends to the Indian and southwest Pacific Oceans. Biogeographic connections between vents and seeps are highlighted, as are potential evolutionary links among populations from vent fields located in the east Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and Atlantic and Indian Oceans; the latter presented for the first time.
Project description:Bacteria and archaea in the dark ocean (>200 m) comprise 0.3-1.3 billion tons of actively cycled marine carbon. Many of these microorganisms have the genetic potential to fix inorganic carbon (autotrophs) or assimilate single-carbon compounds (methylotrophs). We identified the functions of autotrophic and methylotrophic microorganisms in a vent plume at Axial Seamount, where hydrothermal activity provides a biogeochemical hot spot for carbon fixation in the dark ocean. Free-living members of the SUP05/Arctic96BD-19 clade of marine gamma-proteobacterial sulfur oxidizers (GSOs) are distributed throughout the northeastern Pacific Ocean and dominated hydrothermal plume waters at Axial Seamount. Marine GSOs expressed proteins for sulfur oxidation (adenosine phosphosulfate reductase, sox (sulfur oxidizing system), dissimilatory sulfite reductase and ATP sulfurylase), carbon fixation (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase (RuBisCO)), aerobic respiration (cytochrome c oxidase) and nitrogen regulation (PII). Methylotrophs and iron oxidizers were also active in plume waters and expressed key proteins for methane oxidation and inorganic carbon fixation (particulate methane monooxygenase/methanol dehydrogenase and RuBisCO, respectively). Proteomic data suggest that free-living sulfur oxidizers and methylotrophs are among the dominant primary producers in vent plume waters in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.
Project description:The majority of life on Earth--notably, microbial life--occurs in places that do not receive sunlight, with the habitats of the oceans being the largest of these reservoirs. Sunlight penetrates only a few tens to hundreds of meters into the ocean, resulting in large-scale microbial ecosystems that function in the dark. Our knowledge of microbial processes in the dark ocean-the aphotic pelagic ocean, sediments, oceanic crust, hydrothermal vents, etc.-has increased substantially in recent decades. Studies that try to decipher the activity of microorganisms in the dark ocean, where we cannot easily observe them, are yielding paradigm-shifting discoveries that are fundamentally changing our understanding of the role of the dark ocean in the global Earth system and its biogeochemical cycles. New generations of researchers and experimental tools have emerged, in the last decade in particular, owing to dedicated research programs to explore the dark ocean biosphere. This review focuses on our current understanding of microbiology in the dark ocean, outlining salient features of various habitats and discussing known and still unexplored types of microbial metabolism and their consequences in global biogeochemical cycling. We also focus on patterns of microbial diversity in the dark ocean and on processes and communities that are characteristic of the different 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.