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1.  Natural Fumarolic Alteration of Fluorapatite, Olivine, and Basaltic Glass, and Implications for Habitable Environments on Mars 
Astrobiology  2013;13(11):1049-1064.
Fumaroles represent a very important potential habitat on Mars because they contain water and nutrients. Global deposition of volcanic sulfate aerosols may also have been an important soil-forming process affecting large areas of Mars. Here we identify alteration from the Senator fumarole, northwest Nevada, USA, and in low-temperature environments near the fumarole to help interpret fumarolic and acid vapor alteration of rocks and soils on Mars. We analyzed soil samples and fluorapatite, olivine, and basaltic glass placed at and near the fumarole in in situ mineral alteration experiments designed to measure weathering under natural field conditions.
Using synchrotron X-ray diffraction, we clearly observe hydroxyl-carbonate-bearing fluorapatite as a fumarolic alteration product of the original material, fluorapatite. The composition of apatites as well as secondary phosphates has been previously used to infer magmatic conditions as well as fumarolic conditions on Mars. To our knowledge, the observations reported here represent the first documented instance of formation of hydroxyl-carbonate-bearing apatite from fluorapatite in a field experiment. Retreat of olivine surfaces, as well as abundant NH4-containing minerals, was also characteristic of fumarolic alteration. In contrast, alteration in the nearby low-temperature environment resulted in formation of large pits on olivine surfaces, which were clearly distinguishable from the fumarolic alteration. Raman signatures of some fumarolically impacted surfaces are consistent with detection of the biological molecules chlorophyll and scytenomin, potentially useful biosignatures. Observations of altered minerals on Mars may therefore help identify the environment of formation and understand the aqueous history and potential habitability of that planet. Key Words: Fumaroles—Mars—Olivine—Acidophile—Geothermal—Search for life (biosignatures)—Synchrotron X-ray diffraction. Astrobiology 13, 1049–1064.
PMCID: PMC3865726  PMID: 24283927
2.  Olivine-Respiring Bacteria Isolated from the Rock-Ice Interface in a Lava-Tube Cave, a Mars Analog Environment 
Astrobiology  2012;12(1):9-18.
The boundary between ice and basalt on Earth is an analogue for some near-surface environments of Mars. We investigated neutrophilic iron-oxidizing microorganisms from the basalt-ice interface in a lava tube from the Oregon Cascades with perennial ice. One of the isolates (Pseudomonas sp. HerB) can use ferrous iron Fe(II) from the igneous mineral olivine as an electron donor and O2 as an electron acceptor. The optimum growth temperature is ∼12–14°C, but growth also occurs at 5°C. Bicarbonate is a facultative source of carbon. Growth of Pseudomonas sp. HerB as a chemolithotrophic iron oxidizer with olivine as the source of energy is favored in low O2 conditions (e.g., 1.6% O2). Most likely, microbial oxidation of olivine near pH 7 requires low O2 to offset the abiotic oxidation of iron. The metabolic capabilities of this bacterium would allow it to live in near-surface, icy, volcanic environments of Mars in the present or recent geological past and make this type of physiology a prime candidate in the search for life on Mars. Key Words: Extremophiles—Mars—Olivine—Iron-oxidizing bacteria—Redox. Astrobiology 12, 9–18.
PMCID: PMC3264960  PMID: 22165996
3.  Bacterial Communities Associated with Subsurface Geochemical Processes in Continental Serpentinite Springs 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2013;79(13):3906-3916.
Reactions associated with the geochemical process of serpentinization can generate copious quantities of hydrogen and low-molecular-weight organic carbon compounds, which may provide energy and nutrients to sustain subsurface microbial communities independently of the photosynthetically supported surface biosphere. Previous microbial ecology studies have tested this hypothesis in deep sea hydrothermal vents, such as the Lost City hydrothermal field. This study applied similar methods, including molecular fingerprinting and tag sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene, to ultrabasic continental springs emanating from serpentinizing ultramafic rocks. These molecular surveys were linked with geochemical measurements of the fluids in an interdisciplinary approach designed to distinguish potential subsurface organisms from those derived from surface habitats. The betaproteobacterial genus Hydrogenophaga was identified as a likely inhabitant of transition zones where hydrogen-enriched subsurface fluids mix with oxygenated surface water. The Firmicutes genus Erysipelothrix was most strongly correlated with geochemical factors indicative of subsurface fluids and was identified as the most likely inhabitant of a serpentinization-powered subsurface biosphere. Both of these taxa have been identified in multiple hydrogen-enriched subsurface habitats worldwide, and the results of this study contribute to an emerging biogeographic pattern in which Betaproteobacteria occur in near-surface mixing zones and Firmicutes are present in deeper, anoxic subsurface habitats.
PMCID: PMC3697581  PMID: 23584766
4.  Formation of H2 and CH4 by weathering of olivine at temperatures between 30 and 70°C 
Hydrocarbons such as CH4 are known to be formed through the Fischer-Tropsch or Sabatier type reactions in hydrothermal systems usually at temperatures above 100°C. Weathering of olivine is sometimes suggested to account for abiotic formation of CH4 through its redox lowering and water splitting properties. Knowledge about the CH4 and H2 formation processes at low temperatures is important for the research about the origin and cause of early Earth and Martian CH4 and for CO2 sequestration. We have conducted a series of low temperature, long-term weathering experiments in which we have tested the CH4 and H2 formation potential of forsteritic olivine.
The results show low temperature CH4 production that is probably influenced by chromite and magnetite as catalysts. Extensive analyses of a potential CH4 source trapped in the crystal structure of the olivine showed no signs of incorporated CH4. Also, the available sources of organic carbon were not enough to support the total amount of CH4 detected in our experiments. There was also a linear relationship between silica release into solution and the net CH4 accumulation into the incubation bottle headspaces suggesting that CH4 formation under these conditions could be a qualitative indicator of olivine dissolution.
It is likely that minerals such as magnetite, chromite and other metal-rich minerals found on the olivine surface catalyze the formation of CH4, because of the low temperature of the system. This may expand the range of environments plausible for abiotic CH4 formation both on Earth and on other terrestrial bodies.
PMCID: PMC3157414  PMID: 21707970
5.  Adaptations to Submarine Hydrothermal Environments Exemplified by the Genome of Nautilia profundicola 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(2):e1000362.
Submarine hydrothermal vents are model systems for the Archaean Earth environment, and some sites maintain conditions that may have favored the formation and evolution of cellular life. Vents are typified by rapid fluctuations in temperature and redox potential that impose a strong selective pressure on resident microbial communities. Nautilia profundicola strain Am-H is a moderately thermophilic, deeply-branching Epsilonproteobacterium found free-living at hydrothermal vents and is a member of the microbial mass on the dorsal surface of vent polychaete, Alvinella pompejana. Analysis of the 1.7-Mbp genome of N. profundicola uncovered adaptations to the vent environment—some unique and some shared with other Epsilonproteobacterial genomes. The major findings included: (1) a diverse suite of hydrogenases coupled to a relatively simple electron transport chain, (2) numerous stress response systems, (3) a novel predicted nitrate assimilation pathway with hydroxylamine as a key intermediate, and (4) a gene (rgy) encoding the hallmark protein for hyperthermophilic growth, reverse gyrase. Additional experiments indicated that expression of rgy in strain Am-H was induced over 100-fold with a 20°C increase above the optimal growth temperature of this bacterium and that closely related rgy genes are present and expressed in bacterial communities residing in geographically distinct thermophilic environments. N. profundicola, therefore, is a model Epsilonproteobacterium that contains all the genes necessary for life in the extreme conditions widely believed to reflect those in the Archaean biosphere—anaerobic, sulfur, H2- and CO2-rich, with fluctuating redox potentials and temperatures. In addition, reverse gyrase appears to be an important and common adaptation for mesophiles and moderate thermophiles that inhabit ecological niches characterized by rapid and frequent temperature fluctuations and, as such, can no longer be considered a unique feature of hyperthermophiles.
Author Summary
Extreme environments, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents, found 2,500 meters below the ocean surface, support large macrofaunal communities via microbially mediated carbon fixation processes using chemicals (chemoautotrophy) rather than light (photoautotrophy). The genome of one such model chemoautotrophic microbe, N. profundicola, was sequenced and described in this work. N. profundicola, distantly related to the pathogenic Helicobacter and Campylobacter species, contains a number of genes and pathways predicted to be important in DNA repair, environmental sensing, and metabolism, which are novel to either its subdivision or to all microbes. The genes and deduced metabolic pathways include several hydrogen uptake and release systems as well as a novel predicted nitrogen assimilation pathway. One gene involved in DNA repair, reverse gyrase, was thought to be a hallmark protein in hyperthermophiles, which are microbes that grow above 80°C. We found this gene to be highly expressed at 65°C, over 20°C above the optimal growth temperature of this organism. Therefore, the genome of this model deep-sea hydrothermal vent chemoautotroph may reflect what is required for life in an extreme environment, hypothesized to be similar to early earth conditions.
PMCID: PMC2628731  PMID: 19197347
6.  The Emergence of Environmental Homeostasis in Complex Ecosystems 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(5):e1003050.
The Earth, with its core-driven magnetic field, convective mantle, mobile lid tectonics, oceans of liquid water, dynamic climate and abundant life is arguably the most complex system in the known universe. This system has exhibited stability in the sense of, bar a number of notable exceptions, surface temperature remaining within the bounds required for liquid water and so a significant biosphere. Explanations for this range from anthropic principles in which the Earth was essentially lucky, to homeostatic Gaia in which the abiotic and biotic components of the Earth system self-organise into homeostatic states that are robust to a wide range of external perturbations. Here we present results from a conceptual model that demonstrates the emergence of homeostasis as a consequence of the feedback loop operating between life and its environment. Formulating the model in terms of Gaussian processes allows the development of novel computational methods in order to provide solutions. We find that the stability of this system will typically increase then remain constant with an increase in biological diversity and that the number of attractors within the phase space exponentially increases with the number of environmental variables while the probability of the system being in an attractor that lies within prescribed boundaries decreases approximately linearly. We argue that the cybernetic concept of rein control provides insights into how this model system, and potentially any system that is comprised of biological to environmental feedback loops, self-organises into homeostatic states.
Author Summary
Life on Earth is perhaps greater than three and a half billion years old and it would appear that once it started it never stopped. During this period a number of dramatic shocks and drivers have affected the Earth. These include the impacts of massive asteroids, runaway climate change and increases in brightness of the Sun. Has life on Earth simply been lucky in withstanding such perturbations? Are there any self-regulating or homeostatic processes operating in the Earth system that would reduce the severity of such perturbations? If such planetary processes exist, to what extent are they the result of the actions of life? In this study, we show how the regulation of environmental conditions can emerge as a consequence of life's effects. If life is both affected by and affects it environment, then this coupled system can self-organise into a robust control system that was first described during the early cybernetics movement around the middle of the twentieth century. Our findings are in principle applicable to a wide range of real world systems - from microbial mats to aquatic ecosystems up to and including the entire biosphere.
PMCID: PMC3656095  PMID: 23696719
7.  Microbial activity in the marine deep biosphere: progress and prospects 
The vast marine deep biosphere consists of microbial habitats within sediment, pore waters, upper basaltic crust and the fluids that circulate throughout it. A wide range of temperature, pressure, pH, and electron donor and acceptor conditions exists—all of which can combine to affect carbon and nutrient cycling and result in gradients on spatial scales ranging from millimeters to kilometers. Diverse and mostly uncharacterized microorganisms live in these habitats, and potentially play a role in mediating global scale biogeochemical processes. Quantifying the rates at which microbial activity in the subsurface occurs is a challenging endeavor, yet developing an understanding of these rates is essential to determine the impact of subsurface life on Earth's global biogeochemical cycles, and for understanding how microorganisms in these “extreme” environments survive (or even thrive). Here, we synthesize recent advances and discoveries pertaining to microbial activity in the marine deep subsurface, and we highlight topics about which there is still little understanding and suggest potential paths forward to address them. This publication is the result of a workshop held in August 2012 by the NSF-funded Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) “theme team” on microbial activity (
PMCID: PMC3708129  PMID: 23874326
deep biosphere; IODP; biogeochemistry; sediment; oceanic crust; C-DEBI; subsurface microbiology
8.  Astrobiological Aspects of Mars and Human Presence: Pros and Cons 
Hippokratia  2008;12(Suppl 1):49-52.
After the realization of the International Space Station, human exploratory missions to Moon or Mars, i.e. beyond low Earth orbit, are widely considered as the next logical step of peaceful cooperation in space on a global scale. Besides the human desire to extend the window of habitability, human exploratory missions are driven by several aspects of science, technology, culture and economy. Mars is currently considered as a major target in the search for life beyond the Earth. Understanding the history of water on Mars appears to be one of the clues to the puzzle on the probability of life on Mars. On Earth microorganisms have flourished for more than 3.5 Ga and have developed strategies to cope with so-called extreme conditions (e.g., hot vents, permafrost, subsurface regions, rocks or salt crystals). Therefore, in search for life on Mars, microorganisms are the most likely candidates for a putative biota on Mars and the search for morphological or chemical signatures of life or its relics is one of the primary and most exciting goals of Mars exploration. The presence of humans on the surface of Mars will substantially increase this research potential, e.g., by supporting deep subsurface drilling and by allowing intellectual collection and sophisticated in situ analysis of samples of astrobiological interest. On the other hand, such long-duration missions beyond LEO will add a new dimension to human space flight, concerning the distance of travel, the radiation environment, the gravity levels, the duration of the mission, and the level of confinement and isolation the crew will be exposed to. This will raise the significance of several health issues, above all radiation protection, gravity related effects as well as psychological issues. Furthermore, the import of internal and external microorganisms inevitably accompanying any human mission to Mars, or brought purposely to Mars as part of a bioregenerative life support system needs careful consideration with regard to planetary protection issues. Therefore, before planning any human exploratory mission, the critical issues concerning human health and wellbeing as well as protection of Mars in its pristine condition need to be investigated.
PMCID: PMC2577400  PMID: 19048093
Mars; Human exploratory missions; Astrobiology; Search for extraterrestrial life
9.  Models of Formation and Activity of Spring Mounds in the Mechertate-Chrita-Sidi El Hani System, Eastern Tunisia: Implications for the Habitability of Mars 
Life : Open Access Journal  2014;4(3):386-432.
Spring mounds on Earth and on Mars could represent optimal niches of life development. If life ever occurred on Mars, ancient spring deposits would be excellent localities to search for morphological or chemical remnants of an ancient biosphere. In this work, we investigate models of formation and activity of well-exposed spring mounds in the Mechertate-Chrita-Sidi El Hani (MCSH) system, eastern Tunisia. We then use these models to explore possible spring mound formation on Mars. In the MCSH system, the genesis of the spring mounds is a direct consequence of groundwater upwelling, triggered by tectonics and/or hydraulics. As they are oriented preferentially along faults, they can be considered as fault spring mounds, implying a tectonic influence in their formation process. However, the hydraulic pressure generated by the convergence of aquifers towards the surface of the system also allows consideration of an origin as artesian spring mounds. In the case of the MCSH system, our geologic data presented here show that both models are valid, and we propose a combined hydro-tectonic model as the likely formation mechanism of artesian-fault spring mounds. During their evolution from the embryonic (early) to the islet (“island”) stages, spring mounds are also shaped by eolian accumulations and induration processes. Similarly, spring mounds have been suggested to be relatively common in certain provinces on the Martian surface, but their mode of formation is still a matter of debate. We propose that the tectonic, hydraulic, and combined hydro-tectonic models describing the spring mounds at MCSH could be relevant as Martian analogs because: (i) the Martian subsurface may be over pressured, potentially expelling mineral-enriched waters as spring mounds on the surface; (ii) the Martian subsurface may be fractured, causing alignment of the spring mounds in preferential orientations; and (iii) indurated eolian sedimentation and erosional remnants are common features on Mars. The spring mounds further bear diagnostic mineralogic and magnetic properties, in comparison with their immediate surroundings. Consequently, remote sensing techniques can be very useful to identify similar spring mounds on Mars. The mechanisms (tectonic and/or hydraulic) of formation and evolution of spring mounds at the MCSH system are suitable for the proliferation and protection of life respectively. Similarly, life or its resulting biomarkers on Mars may have been protected or preserved under the spring mounds.
PMCID: PMC4206853  PMID: 25370379
Mechertate-Chrita-Sidi El Hani system; Mars habitability; terrestrial analogs; groundwater upwelling; seepage; tectonic model; hydraulic model; fault spring mounds; artesian spring mounds
10.  The early heat loss evolution of Mars and their implications for internal and environmental history 
Scientific Reports  2014;4:4338.
The time around 3.7 Ga ago was an epoch when substantial changes in Mars occurred: a substantial decline in aqueous erosion/degradation of landscape features; a change from abundant phyllosilicate formation to abundant acidic and evaporitic mineralogy; a change from olivine-rich volcanism to olivine-pyroxene volcanism; and maybe the cessation of the martian dynamo. Here I show that Mars also experienced profound changes in its internal dynamics in the same approximate time, including a reduction of heat flow and a drastic increasing of lithosphere strength. The reduction of heat flow indicates a limited cooling (or even a heating-up) of the deep interior for post-3.7 Ga times. The drastic increasing of lithosphere strength indicates a cold lithosphere above the inefficiently cooled (or even heated) interior. All those changes experienced by Mars were most probably linked and suggest the existence of profound interrelations between interior dynamics and environmental evolution of this planet.
PMCID: PMC3949296  PMID: 24614056
11.  Olivine Weathering in Soil, and Its Effects on Growth and Nutrient Uptake in Ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.): A Pot Experiment 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e42098.
Mineral carbonation of basic silicate minerals regulates atmospheric CO2 on geological time scales by locking up carbon. Mining and spreading onto the earth's surface of fast-weathering silicates, such as olivine, has been proposed to speed up this natural CO2 sequestration (‘enhanced weathering’). While agriculture may offer an existing infrastructure, weathering rate and impacts on soil and plant are largely unknown. Our objectives were to assess weathering of olivine in soil, and its effects on plant growth and nutrient uptake. In a pot experiment with perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.), weathering during 32 weeks was inferred from bioavailability of magnesium (Mg) in soil and plant. Olivine doses were equivalent to 1630 (OLIV1), 8150, 40700 and 204000 (OLIV4) kg ha−1. Alternatively, the soluble Mg salt kieserite was applied for reference. Olivine increased plant growth (+15.6%) and plant K concentration (+16.5%) in OLIV4. At all doses, olivine increased bioavailability of Mg and Ni in soil, as well as uptake of Mg, Si and Ni in plants. Olivine suppressed Ca uptake. Weathering estimated from a Mg balance was equivalent to 240 kg ha−1 (14.8% of dose, OLIV1) to 2240 kg ha−1 (1.1%, OLIV4). This corresponds to gross CO2 sequestration of 290 to 2690 kg ha−1 (29 103 to 269 103 kg km−2.) Alternatively, weathering estimated from similarity with kieserite treatments ranged from 13% to 58% for OLIV1. The Olsen model for olivine carbonation predicted 4.0% to 9.0% weathering for our case, independent of olivine dose. Our % values observed at high doses were smaller than this, suggesting negative feedbacks in soil. Yet, weathering appears fast enough to support the ‘enhanced weathering’ concept. In agriculture, olivine doses must remain within limits to avoid imbalances in plant nutrition, notably at low Ca availability; and to avoid Ni accumulation in soil and crop.
PMCID: PMC3415406  PMID: 22912685
12.  High pH microbial ecosystems in a newly discovered, ephemeral, serpentinizing fluid seep at Yanartaş (Chimera), Turkey 
Gas seeps emanating from Yanartaş (Chimera), Turkey, have been documented for thousands of years. Active serpentinization produces hydrogen and a range of carbon gases that may provide fuel for life. Here we report a newly discovered, ephemeral fluid seep emanating from a small gas vent at Yanartaş. Fluids and biofilms were sampled at the source and points downstream. We describe site conditions, and provide microbiological data in the form of enrichment cultures, Scanning electron microscopy (SEM), carbon and nitrogen isotopic composition of solids, and PCR screens of nitrogen cycle genes. Source fluids are pH 11.95, with a Ca:Mg of ~200, and sediments under the ignited gas seep measure 60°C. Collectively, these data suggest the fluid is the product of active serpentinization at depth. Source sediments are primarily calcite and alteration products (chlorite and montmorillonite). Downstream, biofilms are mixed with montmorillonite. SEM shows biofilms distributed homogeneously with carbonates. Organic carbon accounts for 60% of the total carbon at the source, decreasing downstream to <15% as inorganic carbon precipitates. δ13C ratios of the organic carbon fraction of solids are depleted (−25 to −28‰) relative to the carbonates (−11 to −20‰). We conclude that heterotrophic processes are dominant throughout the surface ecosystem, and carbon fixation may be key down channel. δ15N ratios ~3‰, and absence of nifH in extracted DNA suggest that nitrogen fixation is not occurring in sediments. However, the presence of narG and nirS at most locations and in enrichments indicates genomic potential for nitrate and nitrite reduction. This small seep with shallow run-off is likely ephemeral, but abundant preserved microterracettes in the outflow and the surrounding area suggest it has been present for some time. This site and others like it present an opportunity for investigations of preserved deep biosphere signatures, and subsurface-surface interactions.
PMCID: PMC4298219  PMID: 25646094
deep subsurface; serpentinization; Yanartaş (Chimera) Turkey; Tekirova ophiolite; high pH springs; ultramafic
13.  Electrical conductivity of orthopyroxene: Implications for the water content of the asthenosphere 
Electrical conductivity of minerals is sensitive to water content and hence can be used to infer the water content in the mantle. However, previous studies to infer the water content in the upper mantle were based on pure olivine model of the upper mantle. Influence of other minerals particularly that of orthopyroxene needs to be included to obtain a better estimate of water content in view of the high water solubility in this mineral. Here we report new results of electrical conductivity measurements on orthopyroxene, and apply these results to estimate the water content of the upper mantle of Earth. We found that the electrical conductivity of orthopyroxene is enhanced by the addition of water in a similar way as other minerals such as olivine and pyrope garnet. Using these new results, we calculate the electrical conductivity of pyrolite mantle as a function of water content and temperature incorporating the temperature and water fugacity-dependent hydrogen partitioning. Reported values of asthenosphere conductivity of 4 × 10−2−10−1 S/m corresponds to the water content of 0.01–0.04 wt%, a result in good agreement with the petrological model of the upper mantle.
PMCID: PMC3621551  PMID: 20009379
electrical conductivity; orthopyroxene; water; asthenosphere
14.  Metagenomic Evidence for H2 Oxidation and H2 Production by Serpentinite-Hosted Subsurface Microbial Communities 
Ultramafic rocks in the Earth’s mantle represent a tremendous reservoir of carbon and reducing power. Upon tectonic uplift and exposure to fluid flow, serpentinization of these materials generates copious energy, sustains abiogenic synthesis of organic molecules, and releases hydrogen gas (H2). In order to assess the potential for microbial H2 utilization fueled by serpentinization, we conducted metagenomic surveys of a marine serpentinite-hosted hydrothermal chimney (at the Lost City hydrothermal field) and two continental serpentinite-hosted alkaline seeps (at the Tablelands Ophiolite, Newfoundland). Novel [NiFe]-hydrogenase sequences were identified at both the marine and continental sites, and in both cases, phylogenetic analyses indicated aerobic, potentially autotrophic Betaproteobacteria belonging to order Burkholderiales as the most likely H2-oxidizers. Both sites also yielded metagenomic evidence for microbial H2 production catalyzed by [FeFe]-hydrogenases in anaerobic Gram-positive bacteria belonging to order Clostridiales. In addition, we present metagenomic evidence at both sites for aerobic carbon monoxide utilization and anaerobic carbon fixation via the Wood–Ljungdahl pathway. In general, our results point to H2-oxidizing Betaproteobacteria thriving in shallow, oxic–anoxic transition zones and the anaerobic Clostridia thriving in anoxic, deep subsurface habitats. These data demonstrate the feasibility of metagenomic investigations into novel subsurface habitats via surface-exposed seeps and indicate the potential for H2-powered primary production in serpentinite-hosted subsurface habitats.
PMCID: PMC3252642  PMID: 22232619
hydrogenase; serpentinization; alkaline spring; metagenome; subsurface
15.  Colonization of subsurface microbial observatories deployed in young ocean crust 
The ISME Journal  2010;5(4):692-703.
Oceanic crust comprises the largest hydrogeologic reservoir on Earth, containing fluids in thermodynamic disequilibrium with the basaltic crust. Little is known about microbial ecosystems that inhabit this vast realm and exploit chemically favorable conditions for metabolic activities. Crustal samples recovered from ocean drilling operations are often compromised for microbiological assays, hampering efforts to resolve the extent and functioning of a subsurface biosphere. We report results from the first in situ experimental observatory systems that have been used to study subseafloor life. Experiments deployed for 4 years in young (3.5 Ma) basaltic crust on the eastern flank of the Juan de Fuca Ridge record a dynamic, post-drilling response of crustal microbial ecosystems to changing physical and chemical conditions. Twisted stalks exhibiting a biogenic iron oxyhydroxide signature coated the surface of mineral substrates in the observatories; these are biosignatures indicating colonization by iron oxidizing bacteria during an initial phase of cool, oxic, iron-rich conditions following observatory installation. Following thermal and chemical recovery to warmer, reducing conditions, the in situ microbial structure in the observatory shifted, becoming representative of natural conditions in regional crustal fluids. Firmicutes, metabolic potential of which is unknown but may involve N or S cycling, dominated the post-rebound bacterial community. The archaeal community exhibited an extremely low diversity. Our experiment documented in situ conditions within a natural hydrological system that can pervade over millennia, exemplifying the power of observatory experiments for exploring the subsurface basaltic biosphere, the largest but most poorly understood biotope on Earth.
PMCID: PMC3217339  PMID: 21107442
geomicrobiology; deep biosphere; oceanic crust; observatory; hydrothermal
16.  Hexagonal Platelet-like Magnetite as a Biosignature of Thermophilic Iron-Reducing Bacteria and Its Applications to the Exploration of the Modern Deep, Hot Biosphere and the Emergence of Iron-Reducing Bacteria in Early Precambrian Oceans 
Astrobiology  2012;12(12):1100-1108.
Dissimilatory iron-reducing bacteria are able to enzymatically reduce ferric iron and couple to the oxidation of organic carbon. This mechanism induces the mineralization of fine magnetite crystals characterized by a wide distribution in size and irregular morphologies that are indistinguishable from authigenic magnetite. Thermoanaerobacter are thermophilic iron-reducing bacteria that predominantly inhabit terrestrial hot springs or deep crusts and have the capacity to transform amorphous ferric iron into magnetite with a size up to 120 nm. In this study, I first characterize the formation of hexagonal platelet-like magnetite of a few hundred nanometers in cultures of Thermoanaerobacter spp. strain TOR39. Biogenic magnetite with such large crystal sizes and unique morphology has never been observed in abiotic or biotic processes and thus can be considered as a potential biosignature for thermophilic iron-reducing bacteria. The unique crystallographic features and strong ferrimagnetic properties of these crystals allow easy and rapid screening for the previous presence of iron-reducing bacteria in deep terrestrial crustal samples that are unsuitable for biological detection methods and, also, the search for biogenic magnetite in banded iron formations that deposited only in the first 2 billion years of Earth with evidence of life. Key Words: Biosignatures—Magnetite—Iron-reducing bacteria—Deep subsurface biosphere—Banded iron formation. Astrobiology 12, 1100–1108.
PMCID: PMC3522128  PMID: 23145573
17.  Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystem Research during the Census of Marine Life Decade and Beyond: A Proposed Deep-Ocean Road Map 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(8):e23259.
The ChEss project of the Census of Marine Life (2002–2010) helped foster internationally-coordinated studies worldwide focusing on exploration for, and characterization of new deep-sea chemosynthetic ecosystem sites. This work has advanced our understanding of the nature and factors controlling the biogeography and biodiversity of these ecosystems in four geographic locations: the Atlantic Equatorial Belt (AEB), the New Zealand region, the Arctic and Antarctic and the SE Pacific off Chile. In the AEB, major discoveries include hydrothermal seeps on the Costa Rica margin, deepest vents found on the Mid-Cayman Rise and the hottest vents found on the Southern Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It was also shown that the major fracture zones on the MAR do not create barriers for the dispersal but may act as trans-Atlantic conduits for larvae. In New Zealand, investigations of a newly found large cold-seep area suggest that this region may be a new biogeographic province. In the Arctic, the newly discovered sites on the Mohns Ridge (71°N) showed extensive mats of sulfur-oxidisng bacteria, but only one gastropod potentially bears chemosynthetic symbionts, while cold seeps on the Haakon Mossby Mud Volcano (72°N) are dominated by siboglinid worms. In the Antarctic region, the first hydrothermal vents south of the Polar Front were located and biological results indicate that they may represent a new biogeographic province. The recent exploration of the South Pacific region has provided evidence for a sediment hosted hydrothermal source near a methane-rich cold-seep area. Based on our 8 years of investigations of deep-water chemosynthetic ecosystems worldwide, we suggest highest priorities for future research: (i) continued exploration of the deep-ocean ridge-crest; (ii) increased focus on anthropogenic impacts; (iii) concerted effort to coordinate a major investigation of the deep South Pacific Ocean – the largest contiguous habitat for life within Earth's biosphere, but also the world's least investigated deep-ocean basin.
PMCID: PMC3150416  PMID: 21829722
18.  A Conspicuous Clay Ovoid in Nakhla: Evidence for Subsurface Hydrothermal Alteration on Mars with Implications for Astrobiology 
Astrobiology  2014;14(8):651-693.
A conspicuous biomorphic ovoid structure has been discovered in the Nakhla martian meteorite, made of nanocrystalline iron-rich saponitic clay and amorphous material. The ovoid is indigenous to Nakhla and occurs within a late-formed amorphous mesostasis region of rhyolitic composition that is interstitial to two clinopyroxene grains with Al-rich rims, and contains acicular apatite crystals, olivine, sulfides, Ti-rich magnetite, and a new mineral of the rhoenite group. To infer the origin of the ovoid, a large set of analytical tools was employed, including scanning electron microscopy and backscattered electron imaging, wavelength-dispersive X-ray analysis, X-ray mapping, Raman spectroscopy, time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry analysis, high-resolution transmission electron microscope imaging, and atomic force microscope topographic mapping. The concentric wall of the ovoid surrounds an originally hollow volume and exhibits internal layering of contrasting nanotextures but uniform chemical composition, and likely inherited its overall shape from a preexisting vesicle in the mesostasis glass. A final fibrous layer of Fe-rich phases blankets the interior surfaces of the ovoid wall structure. There is evidence that the parent rock of Nakhla has undergone a shock event from a nearby bolide impact that melted the rims of pyroxene and the interstitial matter and initiated an igneous hydrothermal system of rapidly cooling fluids, which were progressively mixed with fluids from the melted permafrost. Sharp temperature gradients were responsible for the crystallization of Al-rich clinopyroxene rims, rhoenite, acicular apatites, and the quenching of the mesostasis glass and the vesicle. During the formation of the ovoid structure, episodic fluid infiltration events resulted in the precipitation of saponite rinds around the vesicle walls, altered pyrrhotite to marcasite, and then isolated the ovoid wall structure from the rest of the system by depositing a layer of iron oxides/hydroxides. Carbonates, halite, and sulfates were deposited last within interstitial spaces and along fractures. Among three plausible competing hypotheses here, this particular abiotic scenario is considered to be the most reasonable explanation for the formation of the ovoid structure in Nakhla, and although compelling evidence for a biotic origin is lacking, it is evident that the martian subsurface contains niche environments where life could develop. Key Words: Biomorph—Clays—Search for life (biosignatures)—Martian meteorites—Hydrothermal systems. Astrobiology 14, 651–693.
PMCID: PMC4126275  PMID: 25046549
19.  Natural Organic Matter as Global Antennae for Primary Production 
Astrobiology  2013;13(5):476-482.
Humic substances (HS) are high-molecular-weight complex refractory organics that are ubiquitous in terrestrial and aquatic environments. While resistant to microbial degradation, these compounds nevertheless support microbial metabolism via oxidation or reduction of their (hydro)quinone moieties. As such, they are known to be important electron sinks for respiratory and fermentative bacteria and electron sources for denitrifying and perchlorate-reducing bacteria. HS also strongly promote abiotic reduction of Fe(III) when irradiated with light. Here, we show that HS-enhanced Fe(III) photoreduction can also drive chemolithotrophic microbial respiration by producing Fe(II), which functions as a respiratory electron donor. Due to their molecular complexity, HS absorb most of the electromagnetic spectrum and can act as broad-spectrum antennae converting radiant energy into bioavailable chemical energy. The finding that chemolithotrophic organisms can utilize this energy has important implications for terrestrial, and possibly extraterrestrial, microbial processes and offers an alternative mechanism of radiation-driven primary productivity to that of phototrophy. Key Words: Deep subsurface biosphere—Chemolithotrophic microorganisms—Organic matter—Geochemistry—Iron-oxidizing bacteria. Astrobiology 13, 476–482.
PMCID: PMC3657287  PMID: 23683047
20.  Selective Phylogenetic Analysis Targeting 16S rRNA Genes of Hyperthermophilic Archaea in the Deep-Subsurface Hot Biosphere▿  
International drilling projects for the study of microbial communities in the deep-subsurface hot biosphere have been expanded. Core samples obtained by deep drilling are commonly contaminated with mesophilic microorganisms in the drilling fluid, making it difficult to examine the microbial community by 16S rRNA gene clone library analysis. To eliminate mesophilic organism contamination, we previously developed a new method (selective phylogenetic analysis [SePA]) based on the strong correlation between the guanine-plus-cytosine (G+C) contents of the 16S rRNA genes and the optimal growth temperatures of prokaryotes, and we verified the method's effectiveness (H. Kimura, M. Sugihara, K. Kato, and S. Hanada, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 72:21-27, 2006). In the present study we ascertained SePA's ability to eliminate contamination by archaeal rRNA genes, using deep-sea hydrothermal fluid (117°C) and surface seawater (29.9°C) as substitutes for deep-subsurface geothermal samples and drilling fluid, respectively. Archaeal 16S rRNA gene fragments, PCR amplified from the surface seawater, were denatured at 82°C and completely digested with exonuclease I (Exo I), while gene fragments from the deep-sea hydrothermal fluid remained intact after denaturation at 84°C because of their high G+C contents. An examination using mixtures of DNAs from the two environmental samples showed that denaturation at 84°C and digestion with Exo I completely eliminated archaeal 16S rRNA genes from the surface seawater. Our method was quite useful for culture-independent community analysis of hyperthermophilic archaea in core samples recovered from deep-subsurface geothermal environments.
PMCID: PMC1855651  PMID: 17277228
21.  First Investigation of the Microbiology of the Deepest Layer of Ocean Crust 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(11):e15399.
The gabbroic layer comprises the majority of ocean crust. Opportunities to sample this expansive crustal environment are rare because of the technological demands of deep ocean drilling; thus, gabbroic microbial communities have not yet been studied. During the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expeditions 304 and 305, igneous rock samples were collected from 0.45-1391.01 meters below seafloor at Hole 1309D, located on the Atlantis Massif (30 °N, 42 °W). Microbial diversity in the rocks was analyzed by denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis and sequencing (Expedition 304), and terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism, cloning and sequencing, and functional gene microarray analysis (Expedition 305). The gabbroic microbial community was relatively depauperate, consisting of a low diversity of proteobacterial lineages closely related to Bacteria from hydrocarbon-dominated environments and to known hydrocarbon degraders, and there was little evidence of Archaea. Functional gene diversity in the gabbroic samples was analyzed with a microarray for metabolic genes (“GeoChip”), producing further evidence of genomic potential for hydrocarbon degradation - genes for aerobic methane and toluene oxidation. Genes coding for anaerobic respirations, such as nitrate reduction, sulfate reduction, and metal reduction, as well as genes for carbon fixation, nitrogen fixation, and ammonium-oxidation, were also present. Our results suggest that the gabbroic layer hosts a microbial community that can degrade hydrocarbons and fix carbon and nitrogen, and has the potential to employ a diversity of non-oxygen electron acceptors. This rare glimpse of the gabbroic ecosystem provides further support for the recent finding of hydrocarbons in deep ocean gabbro from Hole 1309D. It has been hypothesized that these hydrocarbons might originate abiotically from serpentinization reactions that are occurring deep in the Earth's crust, raising the possibility that the lithic microbial community reported here might utilize carbon sources produced independently of the surface biosphere.
PMCID: PMC2974637  PMID: 21079766
22.  A Microbial Oasis in the Hypersaline Atacama Subsurface Discovered by a Life Detector Chip: Implications for the Search for Life on Mars 
Astrobiology  2011;11(10):969-996.
The Atacama Desert has long been considered a good Mars analogue for testing instrumentation for planetary exploration, but very few data (if any) have been reported about the geomicrobiology of its salt-rich subsurface. We performed a Mars analogue drilling campaign next to the Salar Grande (Atacama, Chile) in July 2009, and several cores and powder samples from up to 5 m deep were analyzed in situ with LDChip300 (a Life Detector Chip containing 300 antibodies). Here, we show the discovery of a hypersaline subsurface microbial habitat associated with halite-, nitrate-, and perchlorate-containing salts at 2 m deep. LDChip300 detected bacteria, archaea, and other biological material (DNA, exopolysaccharides, some peptides) from the analysis of less than 0.5 g of ground core sample. The results were supported by oligonucleotide microarray hybridization in the field and finally confirmed by molecular phylogenetic analysis and direct visualization of microbial cells bound to halite crystals in the laboratory. Geochemical analyses revealed a habitat with abundant hygroscopic salts like halite (up to 260 g kg−1) and perchlorate (41.13 μg g−1 maximum), which allow deliquescence events at low relative humidity. Thin liquid water films would permit microbes to proliferate by using detected organic acids like acetate (19.14 μg g−1) or formate (76.06 μg g−1) as electron donors, and sulfate (15875 μg g−1), nitrate (13490 μg g−1), or perchlorate as acceptors. Our results correlate with the discovery of similar hygroscopic salts and possible deliquescence processes on Mars, and open new search strategies for subsurface martian biota. The performance demonstrated by our LDChip300 validates this technology for planetary exploration, particularly for the search for life on Mars. Key Words: Atacama Desert—Life detection—Biosensor—Biopolymers—In situ measurement. Astrobiology 11, 969–996.
PMCID: PMC3242637  PMID: 22149750
23.  Abiotic Production of Methane in Terrestrial Planets 
Astrobiology  2013;13(6):550-559.
On Earth, methane is produced mainly by life, and it has been proposed that, under certain conditions, methane detected in an exoplanetary spectrum may be considered a biosignature. Here, we estimate how much methane may be produced in hydrothermal vent systems by serpentinization, its main geological source, using the kinetic properties of the main reactions involved in methane production by serpentinization. Hydrogen production by serpentinization was calculated as a function of the available FeO in the crust, given the current spreading rates. Carbon dioxide is the limiting reactant for methane formation because it is highly depleted in aqueous form in hydrothermal vent systems. We estimated maximum CH4 surface fluxes of 6.8×108 and 1.3×109 molecules cm−2 s−1 for rocky planets with 1 and 5 M⊕, respectively. Using a 1-D photochemical model, we simulated atmospheres with volume mixing ratios of 0.03 and 0.1 CO2 to calculate atmospheric methane concentrations for the maximum production of this compound by serpentinization. The resulting abundances were 2.5 and 2.1 ppmv for 1 M⊕ planets and 4.1 and 3.7 ppmv for 5 M⊕ planets. Therefore, low atmospheric concentrations of methane may be produced by serpentinization. For habitable planets around Sun-like stars with N2-CO2 atmospheres, methane concentrations larger than 10 ppmv may indicate the presence of life. Key Words: Serpentinization—Exoplanets—Biosignatures—Planetary atmospheres. Astrobiology 13, 550–559.
PMCID: PMC3689174  PMID: 23742231
24.  Prospects for the Study of Evolution in the Deep Biosphere 
Since the days of Darwin, scientists have used the framework of the theory of evolution to explore the interconnectedness of life on Earth and adaptation of organisms to the ever-changing environment. The advent of molecular biology has advanced and accelerated the study of evolution by allowing direct examination of the genetic material that ultimately determines the phenotypes upon which selection acts. The study of evolution has been furthered through examination of microbial evolution, with large population numbers, short generation times, and easily extractable DNA. Such work has spawned the study of microbial biogeography, with the realization that concepts developed in population genetics may be applicable to microbial genomes (Martiny et al., 2006; Manhes and Velicer, 2011). Microbial biogeography and adaptation has been examined in many different environments. Here we argue that the deep biosphere is a unique environment for the study of evolution and list specific factors that can be considered and where the studies may be performed. This publication is the result of the NSF-funded Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) theme team on Evolution (
PMCID: PMC3265032  PMID: 22319515
deep biosphere; subsurface; evolution; C-DEBI; adaptation
25.  Chemolithotrophy in the continental deep subsurface: Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), USA 
The deep subsurface is an enormous repository of microbial life. However, the metabolic capabilities of these microorganisms and the degree to which they are dependent on surface processes are largely unknown. Due to the logistical difficulty of sampling and inherent heterogeneity, the microbial populations of the terrestrial subsurface are poorly characterized. In an effort to better understand the biogeochemistry of deep terrestrial habitats, we evaluate the energetic yield of chemolithotrophic metabolisms and microbial diversity in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in the former Homestake Gold Mine, SD, USA. Geochemical data, energetic modeling, and DNA sequencing were combined with principle component analysis to describe this deep (down to 8100 ft below surface), terrestrial environment. SURF provides access into an iron-rich Paleoproterozoic metasedimentary deposit that contains deeply circulating groundwater. Geochemical analyses of subsurface fluids reveal enormous geochemical diversity ranging widely in salinity, oxidation state (ORP 330 to −328 mV), and concentrations of redox sensitive species (e.g., Fe2+ from near 0 to 6.2 mg/L and Σ S2- from 7 to 2778μg/L). As a direct result of this compositional buffet, Gibbs energy calculations reveal an abundance of energy for microorganisms from the oxidation of sulfur, iron, nitrogen, methane, and manganese. Pyrotag DNA sequencing reveals diverse communities of chemolithoautotrophs, thermophiles, aerobic and anaerobic heterotrophs, and numerous uncultivated clades. Extrapolated across the mine footprint, these data suggest a complex spatial mosaic of subsurface primary productivity that is in good agreement with predicted energy yields. Notably, we report Gibbs energy normalized both per mole of reaction and per kg fluid (energy density) and find the later to be more consistent with observed physiologies and environmental conditions. Further application of this approach will significantly expand our understanding of the deep terrestrial biosphere.
PMCID: PMC4228859  PMID: 25429287
energetics; deep subsurface biosphere; SURF; chemolithotrophy; biogeochemistry

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