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Life in the hydrated suboceanic mantle

Abstract

The recesses of the oceanic crust harbour microbes that influence geochemical fluxes between the solid Earth and the hydrosphere1,2. In the roots of the crust, mantle-derived rocks are progressively hydrated by hydrothermal circulation, a process known as serpentinization. The associated release of molecular hydrogen could provide metabolic energy for microbes3. Phylogenetic analyses of chimneys associated with seafloor hydrothermal systems have provided direct but spatially restricted evidence for the existence of active microbial communities in these hydrated rocks4; indirect evidence comes from isotopic analyses of drill cores5. Here, we examine fully serpentinized peridotites recovered from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, using Raman microspectroscopy and electron microscopy. We detect high concentrations of organic matter, of two types, intimately associated with serpentine-hosted hydrogarnets. One type contains a complex mixture of aliphatic and aromatic compounds and functional groups such as amides, usually associated with biopolymers such as proteins, lipids and nucleic acids. The other corresponds to dense aggregates of thermally evolved carbonaceous matter, with a weak structural organization, which we attribute to the maturation of carbon compounds present in the other type of organic matter identified. We suggest that the observed endogenic accumulations of organic matter result from past microbial activity within the serpentinized oceanic crust, potentially supported by the by-products of serpentinization. We further suggest that the proposed crustal community mediates elemental fluxes from the Earth’s mantle to the oceans.

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Figure 1: C–Mg–Si mélange filling large cavities of a cracked H-Adr grain.
Figure 2: Association of DCM with H-Adr.
Figure 3: Association of organic polymers carrying biological functionalities with H-Adr.
Figure 4: Conceptual model from serpentinization to colonization.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to A. Cipriani, who made available the sample collection recovered during the joint Russian–Italian S22 expedition from dredge site S2232, M. Ligi for providing the multibeam data and O. Boudouma for assistance during SEM. We thank F. Guyot, M. Andreani, A. Delacour, E. Galli, E. Passaglia, E. Gérard, M. van Zuilen and P. Philippot for discussion and support, along with N. H. Sleep for a constructive review. The authors have been funded by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena through the CARBRIDGE project, the French CNRS-INSU INTERRVIE program (SERPECO project), an ECORD Research Grant 2010 to V.P. and the Région Ile de France (IPGP Raman facility). This is IPGP contribution 3241.

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Correspondence to Bénédicte Ménez or Daniele Brunelli.

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Ménez, B., Pasini, V. & Brunelli, D. Life in the hydrated suboceanic mantle. Nature Geosci 5, 133–137 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1359

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