Microbiology of the Deep Oceanic Crust

A recent paper reports for the first time microbiological data from the gabbroic layers of the ocean crust, up to 1,300 meters below the seafloor.

MicrobiologyThe subseafloor represents the most expansive portion of potentially habitable space on Earth, with the ocean crust covering approximately 1018 cubic meters.  Yet, we are only just now beginning to elucidate the activities and physiological adaptations of microorganisms to subseafloor environments, and it is unknown how deep the biosphere currently extends.  Together, these factors define distinct subseafloor biomes and determine their impacts upon global biogeochemical cycles [1].   

A recent paper [2] reports for the first time microbiological data from the gabbroic layers of the ocean crust, up to 1,300 meters below the seafloor.  The samples for these analyses were obtained from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expeditions 304 and 305 to the Atlantis Massif near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Using a variety of genomic methods, the authors show evidence of bacteria-dominated communities capable of anaerobic respiration and assimilation of inorganic carbon and nitrogen compounds.  Furthermore, the authors show the potential for hydrocarbon biodegradation in deep layers of the ocean crust.  These hydrocarbons may be produced by serpentinization processes at even greater depths - completely independent of photosynthetic processes at Earth's surface.  These results provide novel insights into both the nature and extent of the subseafloor biosphere in ocean crust!

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