The ocean's interior is Earth's largest biome. Recently, cultivation-independent ribosomal RNA gene surveys have indicated a potential importance for archaea1 in the subsurface ocean2,3,4. But quantitative data on the abundance of specific microbial groups in the deep sea are lacking5,6. Here we report a year-long study of the abundance of two specific archaeal groups (pelagic euryarchaeota and pelagic crenarchaeota)2 in one of the ocean's largest habitats. Monthly sampling was conducted throughout the water column (surface to 4,750 m) at the Hawai'i Ocean Time-series station7. Below the euphotic zone (> 150 m), pelagic crenarchaeota comprised a large fraction of total marine picoplankton, equivalent in cell numbers to bacteria at depths greater than 1,000 m. The fraction of crenarchaeota increased with depth, reaching 39% of total DNA-containing picoplankton detected. The average sum of archaea plus bacteria detected by rRNA-targeted fluorescent probes ranged from 63 to 90% of total cell numbers at all depths throughout our survey. The high proportion of cells containing significant amounts of rRNA suggests that most pelagic deep-sea microorganisms are metabolically active. Furthermore, our results suggest that the global oceans harbour approximately 1.3 × 1028 archaeal cells, and 3.1 × 1028 bacterial cells. Our data suggest that pelagic crenarchaeota represent one of the ocean's single most abundant cell types.
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We thank the crew of the RV Moana Wave, L. Tupas and K. Björkman for help with sampling. T. Taylor helped standardizing probing protocols, and L. Fujieki provided computational support. This study was supported by NOAA-Seagrant Office (MBK/DMK), NSF (DMK), and support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (EFD). This is SOEST contribution number 5313 and US JGOFS contribution number 647.
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Karner, M., DeLong, E. & Karl, D. Archaeal dominance in the mesopelagic zone of the Pacific Ocean. Nature 409, 507–510 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35054051
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