Despite accounting for a significant portion of the Earth’s prokaryotic biomass, controls on the abundance and biodiversity of microorganisms residing in the continental subsurface are poorly understood. To redress this, we compiled cell concentration and microbial diversity data from continental subsurface localities around the globe. Based on considerations of global heat flow, surface temperature, depth and lithology, we estimated that the continental subsurface hosts 2 to 6 × 1029 cells and found that other variables such as total organic carbon and groundwater cellular abundances do not appear to be predictive of cell concentrations in the continental subsurface. Although we were unable to identify a reliable predictor of species richness in the continental subsurface, we found that bacteria are more abundant than archaea and that their community composition was correlated to sample lithology. Using our updated continental subsurface cellular estimate and existing literature, we estimate that the total global prokaryotic biomass is approximately 23 to 31 Pg of carbon C (PgC), roughly 4 to 10 times less than previous estimates.

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We acknowledge the BGR/UNESCO for the use of their datasets on the global groundwater recharge rate. We thank J. T. Lennon and S. McMahon for helping to improve the quality and clarity of the manuscript. We also acknowledge the support to T.C.O. by NSF grants DEB-1442059 from the Dimensions of Biodiversity program and DEB-1441646 from the GoLife programme, the support to L.-H.L. by Taiwanese MOST and MOE (NTU-107L901002), and the support to H.D. by a grant from the Deep Carbon Observatory Sloan Grant G-2014-3-01. We are grateful to T. W. Shawa of the Map and Geospatial Information Center at Princeton University Libary for assistance with GIS analyses.

Author information


  1. Flatiron Institute Center for Computational Biology, Simons Foundation, New York, NY, USA

    • C. Magnabosco
  2. Department of Geosciences, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan

    • L.-H. Lin
  3. Department of Geology and Environmental Earth Science, Miami University, Oxford, OH, USA

    • H. Dong
  4. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Espoo, Finland

    • M. Bomberg
  5. Department of Microbiology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

    • W. Ghiorse
  6. Division of Molecular Biology, University of Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria

    • H. Stan-Lotter
  7. Microbial Analytics Sweden AB, Mölnlycke, Sweden

    • K. Pedersen
  8. Department of Biology, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, NM, USA

    • T. L. Kieft
  9. Department of Microbial, Biochemical, and Food Biotechnology, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa

    • E. van Heerden
  10. Biosaense Solutions, Bloemfontein, South Africa

    • E. van Heerden
  11. Department of Geosciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • T. C. Onstott


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T.C.O. was responsible for the biomass compilation and GIS calculations. C.M. was responsible for the 16S rRNA compilation and statistical analyses. T.C.O. and C.M. were responsible for writing the manuscript. L.-H.L., H.D., W.G., T.L.K., E.v.H and K.P. contributed previously unpublished biomass data, M.B. contributed previously unpublished amplicon data, and H.S.-L. contributed text on evaporite deposits.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Magnabosco.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Description, Supplementary Tables 1–8, Supplementary Figures 1–25.

  2. Supplementary Table 1

    Summary of cell concentration database.

  3. Supplementary Table 2

    Cell concentration database.

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