Two decades of scientific ocean drilling have demonstrated widespread microbial life in deep sub-seafloor sediment, and surprisingly high microbial-cell numbers. Despite the ubiquity of life in the deep biosphere, the large community sizes and the low energy fluxes in this vast buried ecosystem are not yet understood1,2. It is not known whether organisms of the deep biosphere are specifically adapted to extremely low energy fluxes or whether most of the observed cells are in a dormant, spore-like state3. Here we apply a new approach—the d:l-amino-acid model—to quantify the distributions and turnover times of living microbial biomass, endospores and microbial necromass, as well as to determine their role in the sub-seafloor carbon budget. The approach combines sensitive analyses of unique bacterial markers (muramic acid and D-amino acids) and the bacterial endospore marker, dipicolinic acid, with racemization dynamics of stereo-isomeric amino acids. Endospores are as abundant as vegetative cells and microbial activity is extremely low, leading to microbial biomass turnover times of hundreds to thousands of years. We infer from model calculations that biomass production is sustained by organic carbon deposited from the surface photosynthetic world millions of years ago and that microbial necromass is recycled over timescales of hundreds of thousands of years.
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Bacterial cultures were provided by H. Cypionka. We thank members of the Leg 201 cruise for assistance in obtaining and processing samples. This research used samples and data provided by the Ocean Drilling Program (http://www-odp.tamu.edu/publications/201_IR/201ir.htm). The ODP was sponsored by the US National Science Foundation and participating countries under the management of Joint Oceanographic Institutions. We thank R. O. Holm and L. Poulsen for technical assistance and guidance with high-performance liquid chromatographic analyses. We thank D. L. Valentine for comments and suggestions to improve the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the Max Planck Society, the Danish National Research Foundation, the Danish National Science Research Council, the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Aarhus, and the US National Science Foundation.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Lomstein, B., Langerhuus, A., D’Hondt, S. et al. Endospore abundance, microbial growth and necromass turnover in deep sub-seafloor sediment. Nature 484, 101–104 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10905
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