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Abundance and diversity of microbial life in ocean crust


Oceanic lithosphere exposed at the sea floor undergoes seawater–rock alteration reactions involving the oxidation and hydration of glassy basalt. Basalt alteration reactions are theoretically capable of supplying sufficient energy for chemolithoautotrophic growth1. Such reactions have been shown to generate microbial biomass in the laboratory2, but field-based support for the existence of microbes that are supported by basalt alteration is lacking. Here, using quantitative polymerase chain reaction, in situ hybridization and microscopy, we demonstrate that prokaryotic cell abundances on seafloor-exposed basalts are 3–4 orders of magnitude greater than in overlying deep sea water. Phylogenetic analyses of basaltic lavas from the East Pacific Rise (9° N) and around Hawaii reveal that the basalt-hosted biosphere harbours high bacterial community richness and that community membership is shared between these sites. We hypothesize that alteration reactions fuel chemolithoautotrophic microorganisms, which constitute a trophic base of the basalt habitat, with important implications for deep-sea carbon cycling and chemical exchange between basalt and sea water.

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Figure 1: A highly diverse and abundant epilithic and endolithic microbial community exists on basaltic lavas from the East Pacific Rise.
Figure 2: Confocal laser scanning micrographs of cells hybridized with domain-specific fluorescent probes (via CARD–FISH) on lava surfaces.
Figure 3: Relative bacterial richness from several environmental studies shown through rarefaction analyses.

Accession codes

Primary accessions


Data deposits

Sequences are deposited in the GenBank database under accession numbers EU491521EU491952 (for EPR basalts) and EU491020EU491491 (for Hawaii basalts).


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The authors thank D. Fornari, M. Tivey and H. Schouten for allowing C.M.S. and W.B. to participate in their research cruise AT11-7 to collect samples at the EPR, D. Rogers for samples collected on the research cruise KOK 02-24 at Hawaii, L. Kerr for instruction and guidance on the SEM and confocal microscope, P. Schloss for support with the DOTUR and SONS programs, S. Simmons for support and instruction on qPCR, and E. Leadbetter for advice on the manuscript. This research was supported by a Ridge2K grant awarded to K.J.E. and W.B., in part by a NAI CAN awarded to M.L.S. and K.J.E., and also in part by a Project Development Award from WWU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to C.L.M.

Author Contributions Phylogenetic analyses were performed by C.M.S. for EPR samples, and B.N.O. and E.B. for Hawaii samples; microscopy was done by C.M.S. Biomass calculations were done by W.B. C.L.M. helped C.M.S. with qPCR analyses. M.L.S. supported Hawaii studies and the pipeline for phylogenetic studies. H.S. provided ship access for Hawaii studies. K.J.E. and W.B. developed and guided this project, and K.J.E., C.M.S. and B.N.O. developed and wrote the paper with input from co-authors.

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Correspondence to Katrina J. Edwards.

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The file contains Supplementary Discussion referred to in the manuscript, Supplementary Tables S1-S3, Supplementary Figures S1-S6 with Legends, and additional references. (PDF 749 kb)

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Santelli, C., Orcutt, B., Banning, E. et al. Abundance and diversity of microbial life in ocean crust. Nature 453, 653–656 (2008).

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