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1.  Linking Geology and Microbiology: Inactive Pockmarks Affect Sediment Microbial Community Structure 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(1):e85990.
Pockmarks are geological features that are found on the bottom of lakes and oceans all over the globe. Some are active, seeping oil or methane, while others are inactive. Active pockmarks are well studied since they harbor specialized microbial communities that proliferate on the seeping compounds. Such communities are not found in inactive pockmarks. Interestingly, inactive pockmarks are known to have different macrofaunal communities compared to the surrounding sediments. It is undetermined what the microbial composition of inactive pockmarks is and if it shows a similar pattern as the macrofauna. The Norwegian Oslofjord contains many inactive pockmarks and they are well suited to study the influence of these geological features on the microbial community in the sediment. Here we present a detailed analysis of the microbial communities found in three inactive pockmarks and two control samples at two core depth intervals. The communities were analyzed using high-throughput amplicon sequencing of the 16S rRNA V3 region. Microbial communities of surface pockmark sediments were indistinguishable from communities found in the surrounding seabed. In contrast, pockmark communities at 40 cm sediment depth had a significantly different community structure from normal sediments at the same depth. Statistical analysis of chemical variables indicated significant differences in the concentrations of total carbon and non-particulate organic carbon between 40 cm pockmarks and reference sample sediments. We discuss these results in comparison with the taxonomic classification of the OTUs identified in our samples. Our results indicate that microbial communities at the sediment surface are affected by the water column, while the deeper (40 cm) sediment communities are affected by local conditions within the sediment.
PMCID: PMC3901666  PMID: 24475066
2.  Fine-Scale Community Structure Analysis of ANME in Nyegga Sediments with High and Low Methane Flux 
To obtain knowledge on how regional variations in methane seepage rates influence the stratification, abundance, and diversity of anaerobic methanotrophs (ANME), we analyzed the vertical microbial stratification in a gravity core from a methane micro-seeping area at Nyegga by using 454-pyrosequencing of 16S rRNA gene tagged amplicons and quantitative PCR. These data were compared with previously obtained data from the more active G11 pockmark, characterized by higher methane flux. A down core stratification and high relative abundance of ANME were observed in both cores, with transition from an ANME-2a/b dominated community in low-sulfide and low methane horizons to ANME-1 dominance in horizons near the sulfate-methane transition zone. The stratification was over a wider spatial region and at greater depth in the core with lower methane flux, and the total 16S rRNA copy numbers were two orders of magnitude lower than in the sediments at G11 pockmark. A fine-scale view into the ANME communities at each location was achieved through operational taxonomical units (OTU) clustering of ANME-affiliated sequences. The majority of ANME-1 sequences from both sampling sites clustered within one OTU, while ANME-2a/b sequences were represented in unique OTUs. We suggest that free-living ANME-1 is the most abundant taxon in Nyegga cold seeps, and also the main consumer of methane. The observation of specific ANME-2a/b OTUs at each location could reflect that organisms within this clade are adapted to different geochemical settings, perhaps due to differences in methane affinity. Given that the ANME-2a/b population could be sustained in less active seepage areas, this subgroup could be potential seed populations in newly developed methane-enriched environments.
PMCID: PMC3375579  PMID: 22715336
ANME; pyrosequencing; AOM; community structure; Nyegga; cold seep; stratification
3.  Activity and Diversity of Methanotrophic Bacteria at Methane Seeps in Eastern Lake Constance Sediments ▿  
The activity and community structure of aerobic methanotrophic communities were investigated at methane seeps (pockmarks) in the littoral and profundal zones of an oligotrophic freshwater lake (Lake Constance, Germany). Measurements of potential methane oxidation rates showed that sediments inside littoral pockmarks are hot spots of methane oxidation. Potential methane oxidation rates at littoral pockmark sites exceeded the rates of the surrounding sediment by 2 orders of magnitude. Terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (T-RFLP) analysis of the pmoA gene revealed major differences in the methanotrophic community composition between littoral pockmarks and the surrounding sediments. Clone library analysis confirmed that one distinct Methylobacter-related group dominates the community at littoral pockmarks. In profundal sediments, the differences between pockmarks and surrounding sediments were found to be less pronounced.
PMCID: PMC3126381  PMID: 21335392
4.  Novel Alkane Hydroxylase Gene (alkB) Diversity in Sediments Associated with Hydrocarbon Seeps in the Timor Sea, Australia▿  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2009;75(23):7391-7398.
Hydrocarbon seeps provide inputs of petroleum hydrocarbons to widespread areas of the Timor Sea. Alkanes constitute the largest proportion of chemical components found in crude oils, and therefore genes involved in the biodegradation of these compounds may act as bioindicators for this ecosystem's response to seepage. To assess alkane biodegradation potential, the diversity and distribution of alkane hydroxylase (alkB) genes in sediments of the Timor Sea were studied. Deduced AlkB protein sequences derived from clone libraries identified sequences only distantly related to previously identified AlkB sequences, suggesting that the Timor Sea maybe a rich reservoir for novel alkane hydroxylase enzymes. Most sequences clustered with AlkB sequences previously identified from marine Gammaproteobacteria though protein sequence identities averaged only 73% (with a range of 60% to 94% sequence identities). AlkB sequence diversity was lower in deep water (>400 m) samples off the continental slope than in shallow water (<100 m) samples on the continental shelf but not significantly different in response to levels of alkanes. Real-time PCR assays targeting Timor Sea alkB genes were designed and used to quantify alkB gene targets. No correlation was found between gene copy numbers and levels of hydrocarbons measured in sediments using sensitive gas chromatography-mass spectrometry techniques, probably due to the very low levels of hydrocarbons found in most sediment samples. Interestingly, however, copy numbers of alkB genes increased substantially in sediments exposed directly to active seepage even though only low or undetectable concentrations of hydrocarbons were measured in these sediments in complementary geochemical analyses due to efficient biodegradation.
PMCID: PMC2786413  PMID: 19820158
5.  Metagenomic analysis and metabolite profiling of deep–sea sediments from the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill 
Marine subsurface environments such as deep-sea sediments, house abundant and diverse microbial communities that are believed to influence large-scale geochemical processes. These processes include the biotransformation and mineralization of numerous petroleum constituents. Thus, microbial communities in the Gulf of Mexico are thought to be responsible for the intrinsic bioremediation of crude oil released by the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill. While hydrocarbon contamination is known to enrich for aerobic, oil-degrading bacteria in deep-seawater habitats, relatively little is known about the response of communities in deep-sea sediments, where low oxygen levels may hinder such a response. Here, we examined the hypothesis that increased hydrocarbon exposure results in an altered sediment microbial community structure that reflects the prospects for oil biodegradation under the prevailing conditions. We explore this hypothesis using metagenomic analysis and metabolite profiling of deep-sea sediment samples following the DWH oil spill. The presence of aerobic microbial communities and associated functional genes was consistent among all samples, whereas, a greater number of Deltaproteobacteria and anaerobic functional genes were found in sediments closest to the DWH blowout site. Metabolite profiling also revealed a greater number of putative metabolites in sediments surrounding the blowout zone relative to a background site located 127 km away. The mass spectral analysis of the putative metabolites revealed that alkylsuccinates remained below detection levels, but a homologous series of benzylsuccinates (with carbon chain lengths from 5 to 10) could be detected. Our findings suggest that increased exposure to hydrocarbons enriches for Deltaproteobacteria, which are known to be capable of anaerobic hydrocarbon metabolism. We also provide evidence for an active microbial community metabolizing aromatic hydrocarbons in deep-sea sediments of the Gulf of Mexico.
PMCID: PMC3598227  PMID: 23508965
Deepwater Horizon; metagenomics; metabolomics; oil-degradation
6.  A metagenomic study of methanotrophic microorganisms in Coal Oil Point seep sediments 
BMC Microbiology  2011;11:221.
Methane oxidizing prokaryotes in marine sediments are believed to function as a methane filter reducing the oceanic contribution to the global methane emission. In the anoxic parts of the sediments, oxidation of methane is accomplished by anaerobic methanotrophic archaea (ANME) living in syntrophy with sulphate reducing bacteria. This anaerobic oxidation of methane is assumed to be a coupling of reversed methanogenesis and dissimilatory sulphate reduction. Where oxygen is available aerobic methanotrophs take part in methane oxidation. In this study, we used metagenomics to characterize the taxonomic and metabolic potential for methane oxidation at the Tonya seep in the Coal Oil Point area, California. Two metagenomes from different sediment depth horizons (0-4 cm and 10-15 cm below sea floor) were sequenced by 454 technology. The metagenomes were analysed to characterize the distribution of aerobic and anaerobic methanotrophic taxa at the two sediment depths. To gain insight into the metabolic potential the metagenomes were searched for marker genes associated with methane oxidation.
Blast searches followed by taxonomic binning in MEGAN revealed aerobic methanotrophs of the genus Methylococcus to be overrepresented in the 0-4 cm metagenome compared to the 10-15 cm metagenome. In the 10-15 cm metagenome, ANME of the ANME-1 clade, were identified as the most abundant methanotrophic taxon with 8.6% of the reads. Searches for particulate methane monooxygenase (pmoA) and methyl-coenzyme M reductase (mcrA), marker genes for aerobic and anaerobic oxidation of methane respectively, identified pmoA in the 0-4 cm metagenome as Methylococcaceae related. The mcrA reads from the 10-15 cm horizon were all classified as originating from the ANME-1 clade.
Most of the taxa detected were present in both metagenomes and differences in community structure and corresponding metabolic potential between the two samples were mainly due to abundance differences.
The results suggests that the Tonya Seep sediment is a robust methane filter, where taxa presently dominating this process could be replaced by less abundant methanotrophic taxa in case of changed environmental conditions.
PMCID: PMC3197505  PMID: 21970369
7.  The microbial nitrogen cycling potential is impacted by polyaromatic hydrocarbon pollution of marine sediments 
During hydrocarbon exposure, the composition and functional dynamics of marine microbial communities are altered, favoring bacteria that can utilize this rich carbon source. Initial exposure of high levels of hydrocarbons in aerobic surface sediments can enrich growth of heterotrophic microorganisms having hydrocarbon degradation capacity. As a result, there can be a localized reduction in oxygen potential within the surface layer of marine sediments causing anaerobic zones. We hypothesized that increasing exposure to elevated hydrocarbon concentrations would positively correlate with an increase in denitrification processes and the net accumulation of dinitrogen. This hypothesis was tested by comparing the relative abundance of genes associated with nitrogen metabolism and nitrogen cycling identified in 6 metagenomes from sediments contaminated by polyaromatic hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and 3 metagenomes from sediments associated with natural oil seeps in the Santa Barbara Channel. An additional 8 metagenomes from uncontaminated sediments from the Gulf of Mexico were analyzed for comparison. We predicted relative changes in metabolite turnover as a function of the differential microbial gene abundances, which showed predicted accumulation of metabolites associated with denitrification processes, including anammox, in the contaminated samples compared to uncontaminated sediments, with the magnitude of this change being positively correlated to the hydrocarbon concentration and exposure duration. These data highlight the potential impact of hydrocarbon inputs on N cycling processes in marine sediments and provide information relevant for system scale models of nitrogen metabolism in affected ecosystems.
PMCID: PMC3971162  PMID: 24723913
nitrogen cycling; marine sediments; denitrification; microbial ecology; metagenomics; deepwater horizon oil spill; oil contamination; oil seeps
8.  Metagenomics reveals sediment microbial community response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill 
The ISME Journal  2014;8(7):1464-1475.
The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill in the spring of 2010 resulted in an input of ∼4.1 million barrels of oil to the Gulf of Mexico; >22% of this oil is unaccounted for, with unknown environmental consequences. Here we investigated the impact of oil deposition on microbial communities in surface sediments collected at 64 sites by targeted sequencing of 16S rRNA genes, shotgun metagenomic sequencing of 14 of these samples and mineralization experiments using 14C-labeled model substrates. The 16S rRNA gene data indicated that the most heavily oil-impacted sediments were enriched in an uncultured Gammaproteobacterium and a Colwellia species, both of which were highly similar to sequences in the DWH deep-sea hydrocarbon plume. The primary drivers in structuring the microbial community were nitrogen and hydrocarbons. Annotation of unassembled metagenomic data revealed the most abundant hydrocarbon degradation pathway encoded genes involved in degrading aliphatic and simple aromatics via butane monooxygenase. The activity of key hydrocarbon degradation pathways by sediment microbes was confirmed by determining the mineralization of 14C-labeled model substrates in the following order: propylene glycol, dodecane, toluene and phenanthrene. Further, analysis of metagenomic sequence data revealed an increase in abundance of genes involved in denitrification pathways in samples that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s benchmarks for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) compared with those that did not. Importantly, these data demonstrate that the indigenous sediment microbiota contributed an important ecosystem service for remediation of oil in the Gulf. However, PAHs were more recalcitrant to degradation, and their persistence could have deleterious impacts on the sediment ecosystem.
PMCID: PMC4069396  PMID: 24451203
DWH oil spill; hydrocarbons; iTag/Metagenomics; microbial community structure; sediments
9.  Archaeal and anaerobic methane oxidizer communities in the Sonora Margin cold seeps, Guaymas Basin (Gulf of California) 
The ISME Journal  2013;7(8):1595-1608.
Cold seeps, located along the Sonora Margin transform fault in the Guaymas Basin, were extensively explored during the ‘BIG' cruise in June 2010. They present a seafloor mosaic pattern consisting of different faunal assemblages and microbial mats. To investigate this mostly unknown cold and hydrocarbon-rich environment, geochemical and microbiological surveys of the sediments underlying two microbial mats and a surrounding macrofaunal habitat were analyzed in detail. The geochemical measurements suggest biogenic methane production and local advective sulfate-rich fluxes in the sediments. The distributions of archaeal communities, particularly those involved in the methane cycle, were investigated at different depths (surface to 18 cm below the sea floor (cmbsf)) using complementary molecular approaches, such as Automated method of Ribosomal Intergenic Spacer Analysis (ARISA), 16S rRNA libraries, fluorescence in situ hybridization and quantitative polymerase chain reaction with new specific primer sets targeting methanogenic and anaerobic methanotrophic lineages. Molecular results indicate that metabolically active archaeal communities were dominated by known clades of anaerobic methane oxidizers (archaeal anaerobic methanotroph (ANME)-1, -2 and -3), including a novel ‘ANME-2c Sonora' lineage. ANME-2c were found to be dominant, metabolically active and physically associated with syntrophic Bacteria in sulfate-rich shallow sediment layers. In contrast, ANME-1 were more prevalent in the deepest sediment samples and presented a versatile behavior in terms of syntrophic association, depending on the sulfate concentration. ANME-3 were concentrated in small aggregates without bacterial partners in a restricted sediment horizon below the first centimetres. These niche specificities and syntrophic behaviors, depending on biological surface assemblages and environmental availability of electron donors, acceptors and carbon substrates, suggest that ANME could support alternative metabolic pathways than syntrophic anaerobic oxidation of methane.
PMCID: PMC3721105  PMID: 23446836
ANME; AOM; Archaea; FISH; Q-PCR; Sonora Margin
10.  Spatial Structure and Activity of Sedimentary Microbial Communities Underlying a Beggiatoa spp. Mat in a Gulf of Mexico Hydrocarbon Seep 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(1):e8738.
Subsurface fluids from deep-sea hydrocarbon seeps undergo methane- and sulfur-cycling microbial transformations near the sediment surface. Hydrocarbon seep habitats are naturally patchy, with a mosaic of active seep sediments and non-seep sediments. Microbial community shifts and changing activity patterns on small spatial scales from seep to non-seep sediment remain to be examined in a comprehensive habitat study.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We conducted a transect of biogeochemical measurements and gene expression related to methane- and sulfur-cycling at different sediment depths across a broad Beggiatoa spp. mat at Mississippi Canyon 118 (MC118) in the Gulf of Mexico. High process rates within the mat (∼400 cm and ∼10 cm from the mat's edge) contrasted with sharply diminished activity at ∼50 cm outside the mat, as shown by sulfate and methane concentration profiles, radiotracer rates of sulfate reduction and methane oxidation, and stable carbon isotopes. Likewise, 16S ribosomal rRNA, dsrAB (dissimilatory sulfite reductase) and mcrA (methyl coenzyme M reductase) mRNA transcripts of sulfate-reducing bacteria (Desulfobacteraceae and Desulfobulbaceae) and methane-cycling archaea (ANME-1 and ANME-2) were prevalent at the sediment surface under the mat and at its edge. Outside the mat at the surface, 16S rRNA sequences indicated mostly aerobes commonly found in seawater. The seep-related communities persisted at 12–20 cm depth inside and outside the mat. 16S rRNA transcripts and V6-tags reveal that bacterial and archaeal diversity underneath the mat are similar to each other, in contrast to oxic or microoxic habitats that have higher bacterial diversity.
The visual patchiness of microbial mats reflects sharp discontinuities in microbial community structure and activity over sub-meter spatial scales; these discontinuities have to be taken into account in geochemical and microbiological inventories of seep environments. In contrast, 12–20 cm deep in the sediments microbial communities performing methane-cycling and sulfate reduction persist at lower metabolic rates regardless of mat cover, and may increase activity rapidly when subsurface flow changes.
PMCID: PMC2806916  PMID: 20090951
11.  Deep-Sea Benthic Footprint of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(8):e70540.
The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) accident in the northern Gulf of Mexico occurred on April 20, 2010 at a water depth of 1525 meters, and a deep-sea plume was detected within one month. Oil contacted and persisted in parts of the bottom of the deep-sea in the Gulf of Mexico. As part of the response to the accident, monitoring cruises were deployed in fall 2010 to measure potential impacts on the two main soft-bottom benthic invertebrate groups: macrofauna and meiofauna. Sediment was collected using a multicorer so that samples for chemical, physical and biological analyses could be taken simultaneously and analyzed using multivariate methods. The footprint of the oil spill was identified by creating a new variable with principal components analysis where the first factor was indicative of the oil spill impacts and this new variable mapped in a geographic information system to identify the area of the oil spill footprint. The most severe relative reduction of faunal abundance and diversity extended to 3 km from the wellhead in all directions covering an area about 24 km2. Moderate impacts were observed up to 17 km towards the southwest and 8.5 km towards the northeast of the wellhead, covering an area 148 km2. Benthic effects were correlated to total petroleum hydrocarbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and barium concentrations, and distance to the wellhead; but not distance to hydrocarbon seeps. Thus, benthic effects are more likely due to the oil spill, and not natural hydrocarbon seepage. Recovery rates in the deep sea are likely to be slow, on the order of decades or longer.
PMCID: PMC3737147  PMID: 23950956
12.  Comparative metagenomics of bathypelagic plankton and bottom sediment from the Sea of Marmara 
The ISME journal  2010;5(2):285-304.
To extend comparative metagenomic analyses of the deep-sea, we produced metagenomic data by direct 454 pyrosequencing from bathypelagic plankton (1000 m depth) and bottom sediment of the Sea of Marmara, the gateway between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Data from small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) gene libraries and direct pyrosequencing of the same samples indicated that Gamma- and Alpha-proteobacteria, followed by Bacteroidetes, dominated the bacterial fraction in Marmara deep-sea plankton, whereas Planctomycetes, Delta- and Gamma-proteobacteria were the most abundant groups in high bacterial-diversity sediment. Group I Crenarchaeota/Thaumarchaeota dominated the archaeal plankton fraction, although group II and III Euryarchaeota were also present. Eukaryotes were highly diverse in SSU rRNA gene libraries, with group I (Duboscquellida) and II (Syndiniales) alveolates and Radiozoa dominating plankton, and Opisthokonta and Alveolates, sediment. However, eukaryotic sequences were scarce in pyrosequence data. Archaeal amo genes were abundant in plankton, suggesting that Marmara planktonic Thaumarchaeota are ammonia oxidizers. Genes involved in sulfate reduction, carbon monoxide oxidation, anammox and sulfatases were over-represented in sediment. Genome recruitment analyses showed that Alteromonas macleodii ‘surface ecotype', Pelagibacter ubique and Nitrosopumilus maritimus were highly represented in 1000 m-deep plankton. A comparative analysis of Marmara metagenomes with ALOHA deep-sea and surface plankton, whale carcasses, Peru subsurface sediment and soil metagenomes clustered deep-sea Marmara plankton with deep-ALOHA plankton and whale carcasses, likely because of the suboxic conditions in the deep Marmara water column. The Marmara sediment clustered with the soil metagenome, highlighting the common ecological role of both types of microbial communities in the degradation of organic matter and the completion of biogeochemical cycles.
PMCID: PMC3105693  PMID: 20668488
deep-sea; anaerobic respiration; carbon fixation; carbon cycle; sulfate reduction; ammonia oxidation
13.  Metagenome, metatranscriptome and single-cell sequencing reveal microbial response to Deepwater Horizon oil spill 
The ISME Journal  2012;6(9):1715-1727.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in a deep-sea hydrocarbon plume that caused a shift in the indigenous microbial community composition with unknown ecological consequences. Early in the spill history, a bloom of uncultured, thus uncharacterized, members of the Oceanospirillales was previously detected, but their role in oil disposition was unknown. Here our aim was to determine the functional role of the Oceanospirillales and other active members of the indigenous microbial community using deep sequencing of community DNA and RNA, as well as single-cell genomics. Shotgun metagenomic and metatranscriptomic sequencing revealed that genes for motility, chemotaxis and aliphatic hydrocarbon degradation were significantly enriched and expressed in the hydrocarbon plume samples compared with uncontaminated seawater collected from plume depth. In contrast, although genes coding for degradation of more recalcitrant compounds, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, total xylenes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, were identified in the metagenomes, they were expressed at low levels, or not at all based on analysis of the metatranscriptomes. Isolation and sequencing of two Oceanospirillales single cells revealed that both cells possessed genes coding for n-alkane and cycloalkane degradation. Specifically, the near-complete pathway for cyclohexane oxidation in the Oceanospirillales single cells was elucidated and supported by both metagenome and metatranscriptome data. The draft genome also included genes for chemotaxis, motility and nutrient acquisition strategies that were also identified in the metagenomes and metatranscriptomes. These data point towards a rapid response of members of the Oceanospirillales to aliphatic hydrocarbons in the deep sea.
PMCID: PMC3498917  PMID: 22717885
Gulf oil spill; Deepwater Horizon; Oceanospirillales; single-cell genomics; metagenomics; metatranscriptomics
14.  Environment-Dependent Distribution of the Sediment nifH-Harboring Microbiota in the Northern South China Sea 
The South China Sea (SCS), the largest marginal sea in the Western Pacific Ocean, is a huge oligotrophic water body with very limited influx of nitrogenous nutrients. This suggests that sediment microbial N2 fixation plays an important role in the production of bioavailable nitrogen. To test the molecular underpinning of this hypothesis, the diversity, abundance, biogeographical distribution, and community structure of the sediment diazotrophic microbiota were investigated at 12 sampling sites, including estuarine, coastal, offshore, deep-sea, and methane hydrate reservoirs or their prospective areas by targeting nifH and some other functional biomarker genes. Diverse and novel nifH sequences were obtained, significantly extending the evolutionary complexity of extant nifH genes. Statistical analyses indicate that sediment in situ temperature is the most significant environmental factor influencing the abundance, community structure, and spatial distribution of the sediment nifH-harboring microbial assemblages in the northern SCS (nSCS). The significantly positive correlation of the sediment pore water NH4+ concentration with the nifH gene abundance suggests that the nSCS sediment nifH-harboring microbiota is active in N2 fixation and NH4+ production. Several other environmental factors, including sediment pore water PO43− concentration, sediment organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus levels, etc., are also important in influencing the community structure, spatial distribution, or abundance of the nifH-harboring microbial assemblages. We also confirmed that the nifH genes encoded by archaeal diazotrophs in the ANME-2c subgroup occur exclusively in the deep-sea methane seep areas, providing for the possibility to develop ANME-2c nifH genes as a diagnostic tool for deep-sea methane hydrate reservoir discovery.
PMCID: PMC3536100  PMID: 23064334
15.  Use and trade of bitumen in antiquity and prehistory: molecular archaeology reveals secrets of past civilizations 
Natural asphalt (or bitumen) deposits, oil seepage and liquid oil shows are widespread in the Middle East, especially in the Zagros mountains of Iran. Ancient people from northern Iraq, south-west Iran and the Dead Sea area extensively used this ubiquitous natural resource until the Neolithic period (7000 to 6000 BC). Evidence of earlier use has been recently documented in the Syrian desert near El Kown, where bitumen-coated flint implements, dated to 40,000 BC (Mousterian period), have been unearthed. This discovery at least proves that bitumen was used by Neanderthal populations as hafting material to fix handles to their flint tools. Numerous testimonies, proving the importance of this petroleum-based material in Ancient civilizations, were brought to light by the excavations conducted in the Near East as of the beginning of the century. Bitumen remains show a wide range of uses that can be classified under several headings. First of all, bitumen was largely used in Mesopotamia and Elam as mortar in the construction of palaces (e.g. the Darius Palace in Susa), temples, ziggurats (e.g. the so-called 'Tower of Babel' in Babylon), terraces (e.g. the famous 'Hanging Gardens of Babylon') and exceptionally for roadway coating (e.g. the processional way of Babylon). Since the Neolithic, bitumen served to waterproof containers (baskets, earthenware jars, storage pits), wooden posts, palace grounds (e.g. in Mari and Haradum), reserves of lustral waters, bathrooms, palm roofs, etc. Mats, sarcophagi, coffins and jars, used for funeral practices, were often covered and sealed with bitumen. Reed and wood boats were also caulked with bitumen. Abundant lumps of bituminous mixtures used for that particular purpose have been found in storage rooms of houses at Ra's al-Junayz in Oman. Bitumen was also a widespread adhesive in antiquity and served to repair broken ceramics, fix eyes and horns on statues (e.g. at Tell al-Ubaid around 2500 BC). Beautiful decorations with stones, shells, mother of pearl, on palm trees, cups, ostrich eggs, musical instruments (e.g. the Queen's lyre) and other items, such as rings, jewellery and games, have been excavated from the Royal tombs in Ur. They are on view in the British Museum. With a special enigmatic material, commonly referred to as 'bitumen mastic', the inhabitants of Susa sculpted masterpieces of art which are today exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris. This unique collection is presented in a book by Connan and Deschesne (1996). Last, bitumen was also considered as a powerful remedy in medical practice, especially as a disinfectant and insecticide, and was used by the ancient Egyptians to prepare mixtures to embalm the corpses of their dead. Modern analytical techniques, currently applied in the field of petroleum geochemistry, have been adapted to the study of numerous archaeological bituminous mixtures found in excavations. More than 700 bituminous samples have been analysed during the last decade, using gas chromatography alone and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry and isotopic chemistry (carbon and hydrogen mainly). These powerful tools, focused on the detailed analysis of biomarkers in hydrocarbon fractions, were calibrated on various well-known natural sources of bitumen in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Bahrain and Kuwait. These reference studies have made it possible to establish the origins of bitumen from numerous archaeological sites and to document the bitumen trade routes in the Middle East and the Arabo-Persian Gulf. Using a well-documented case history, Tell el 'Oueili (5800 to 3500 BC) in South Mesopotamia, we will illustrate in this paper how these new molecular and isotopic tools can help us to recognize different sources of bitumen and to trace the ancient trade routes through time. These import routes were found to vary with major cultural and political changes in the area under study. A second example, referring to the prehistoric period, describes bitumen traces on flint implements, dated from Mousterian times. This discovery, from the Umm El Tlel excavations near El Kown in Syria, was reported in 1996 in Boëda et al. At that time, the origin of the bitumen had not been elucidated due to contamination problems. Last year, a ball of natural oil-stained sands, unearthed from the same archaeological layer, allowed us to determine the source of the bitumen used. This source is regional and located in the Jebel Bichri, nearly 40 km from the archaeological site. The last case history was selected to illustrate another aspect of the investigations carried out. Recent geochemical studies on more than 20 balms from Egyptian mummies from the Intermediate, Ptolemaic and Roman periods have revealed that these balms are composed of various mixtures of bitumen, conifer resins, grease and beeswax. Bitumen occurs with the other ingredients and the balms studied show a great variety of molecular compositions. Bitumen from the Dead Sea area is the most common source but some other sources (Hit in Iraq?) are also revealed by different molecular patterns. The absolute amount of bitumen in balms varies from almost zero to 30% per weight.
PMCID: PMC1692448
16.  Stratified Community Responses to Methane and Sulfate Supplies in Mud Volcano Deposits: Insights from an In Vitro Experiment 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(11):e113004.
Numerous studies on marine prokaryotic communities have postulated that a process of anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) coupled with sulfate reduction (SR) is the main methane sink in the world's oceans. AOM has also been reported in the deep biosphere. But the responses of the primary microbial players in eliciting changes in geochemical environments, specifically in methane and sulfate supplies, have yet to be fully elucidated. Marine mud volcanoes (MVs) expel a complex fluid mixture of which methane is the primary component, forming an environment in which AOM is a common phenomenon. In this context, we attempted to identify how the prokaryotic community would respond to changes in methane and sulfate intensities, which often occur in MV environments in the form of eruptions, diffusions or seepage. We applied an integrated approach, including (i) biochemical surveys of pore water originated from MV, (ii) in vitro incubation of mud breccia, and (iii) prokaryotic community structure analysis. Two distinct AOM regions were clearly detected. One is related to the sulfate methane transition zone (SMTZ) at depth of 30–55 cm below the sea floor (bsf); the second is at 165–205 cm bsf with ten times higher rates of AOM and SR. This finding contrasts with the sulfide concentrations in pore waters and supports the suggestion that potential AOM activity below the SMTZ might be an important methane sink that is largely ignored or underestimated in oceanic methane budget calculations. Moreover, the incubation conditions below the SMTZ favor the growth of methanotrophic archaeal group ANME-2 compared to ANME-1, and promote the rapid growth and high diversity of bacterial communities. These incubation conditions also promote the increase of richness in bacterial communities. Our results provide direct evidence of the mechanisms by which deep AOM processes can affect carbon cycling in the deep biosphere and global methane biochemistry.
PMCID: PMC4231134  PMID: 25393146
17.  Metagenome reveals potential microbial degradation of hydrocarbon coupled with sulfate reduction in an oil-immersed chimney from Guaymas Basin 
Deep-sea hydrothermal vent chimneys contain a high diversity of microorganisms, yet the metabolic activity and the ecological functions of the microbial communities remain largely unexplored. In this study, a metagenomic approach was applied to characterize the metabolic potential in a Guaymas hydrothermal vent chimney and to conduct comparative genomic analysis among a variety of environments with sequenced metagenomes. Complete clustering of functional gene categories with a comparative metagenomic approach showed that this Guaymas chimney metagenome was clustered most closely with a chimney metagenome from Juan de Fuca. All chimney samples were enriched with genes involved in recombination and repair, chemotaxis and flagellar assembly, highlighting their roles in coping with the fluctuating extreme deep-sea environments. A high proportion of transposases was observed in all the metagenomes from deep-sea chimneys, supporting the previous hypothesis that horizontal gene transfer may be common in the deep-sea vent chimney biosphere. In the Guaymas chimney metagenome, thermophilic sulfate reducing microorganisms including bacteria and archaea were found predominant, and genes coding for the degradation of refractory organic compounds such as cellulose, lipid, pullullan, as well as a few hydrocarbons including toluene, ethylbenzene and o-xylene were identified. Therefore, this oil-immersed chimney supported a thermophilic microbial community capable of oxidizing a range of hydrocarbons that served as electron donors for sulphate reduction under anaerobic conditions.
PMCID: PMC3682177  PMID: 23785357
metagenome; deep sea; hydrothermal vent; chimney; Guaymas; biodegradation; hydrocarbon; sulfate reduction
18.  A Cell Extraction Method for Oily Sediments 
Hydrocarbons can be found in many different habitats and represent an important carbon source for microbes. As fossil fuels, they are also an important economical resource and through natural seepage or accidental release they can be major pollutants. DNA-specific stains and molecular probes bind to hydrocarbons, causing massive background fluorescence, thereby hampering cell enumeration. The cell extraction procedure of Kallmeyer et al. (2008) separates the cells from the sediment matrix. In principle, this technique can also be used to separate cells from oily sediments, but it was not originally optimized for this application. Here we present a modified extraction method in which the hydrocarbons are removed prior to cell extraction. Due to the reduced background fluorescence the microscopic image becomes clearer, making cell identification, and enumeration much easier. Consequently, the resulting cell counts from oily samples treated according to our new protocol are significantly higher than those treated according to Kallmeyer et al. (2008). We tested different amounts of a variety of solvents for their ability to remove hydrocarbons and found that n-hexane and – in samples containing more mature oils – methanol, delivered the best results. However, as solvents also tend to lyse cells, it was important to find the optimum solvent to sample ratio, at which hydrocarbon extraction is maximized and cell lysis minimized. A volumetric ratio of 1:2–1:5 between a formalin-fixed sediment slurry and solvent delivered highest cell counts. Extraction efficiency was around 30–50% and was checked on both oily samples spiked with known amounts of E. coli cells and oil-free samples amended with fresh and biodegraded oil. The method provided reproducible results on samples containing very different kinds of oils with regard to their degree of biodegradation. For strongly biodegraded oil MeOH turned out to be the most appropriate solvent, whereas for less biodegraded samples n-hexane delivered best results.
PMCID: PMC3221397  PMID: 22125553
cell enumeration; hydrocarbons; cell separation; subsurface microbiology
19.  Metagenomics of the subsurface Brazos-Trinity Basin (IODP site 1320): comparison with other sediment and pyrosequenced metagenomes 
The ISME journal  2011;5(6):1038-1047.
The Brazos-Trinity Basin on the slope of the Gulf of Mexico passive margin was drilled during Integrated Ocean Drilling Progam Expedition 308. The buried anaerobic sediments of this basin are largely organic-poor and have few microbial inhabitants compared with the organic-rich sediments with high cell counts from the Peru Margin that were drilled during Ocean Drilling Program Leg 201. Nucleic acids were extracted from Brazos-Trinity Basin sediments and were subjected to whole-genome amplification and pyrosequencing. A comparison of the Brazos-Trinity Basin metagenome, consisting of 105 Mbp, and the existing Peru Margin metagenome revealed trends linking gene content, phylogenetic content, geological location and geochemical regime. The major microbial groups (Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, Euryarchaeota and Chloroflexi) occur consistently throughout all samples, yet their shifting abundances allow for discrimination between samples. The cluster of orthologous groups category abundances for some classes of genes are correlated with geochemical factors, such as the level of ammonia. Here we describe the sediment metagenome from the oligotrophic Brazos-Trinity Basin (Site 1320) and show similarities and differences with the dataset from the Pacific Peru Margin (Site 1229) and other pyrosequenced datasets. The microbial community found at Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Site 1320 likely represents the subsurface microbial inhabitants of turbiditic slopes that lack substantial upwelling.
PMCID: PMC3131849  PMID: 21209666
comparative metagenomics; pyrosequencing; subseafloor; microbial ecology
20.  Resource quality affects carbon cycling in deep-sea sediments 
The ISME Journal  2012;6(9):1740-1748.
Deep-sea sediments cover ∼70% of Earth's surface and represent the largest interface between the biological and geological cycles of carbon. Diatoms and zooplankton faecal pellets naturally transport organic material from the upper ocean down to the deep seabed, but how these qualitatively different substrates affect the fate of carbon in this permanently cold environment remains unknown. We added equal quantities of 13C-labelled diatoms and faecal pellets to a cold water (−0.7 °C) sediment community retrieved from 1080 m in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, Northeast Atlantic, and quantified carbon mineralization and uptake by the resident bacteria and macrofauna over a 6-day period. High-quality, diatom-derived carbon was mineralized >300% faster than that from low-quality faecal pellets, demonstrating that qualitative differences in organic matter drive major changes in the residence time of carbon at the deep seabed. Benthic bacteria dominated biological carbon processing in our experiments, yet showed no evidence of resource quality-limited growth; they displayed lower growth efficiencies when respiring diatoms. These effects were consistent in contrasting months. We contend that respiration and growth in the resident sediment microbial communities were substrate and temperature limited, respectively. Our study has important implications for how future changes in the biochemical makeup of exported organic matter will affect the balance between mineralization and sequestration of organic carbon in the largest ecosystem on Earth.
PMCID: PMC3498925  PMID: 22378534
bacterial growth efficiency; biogeochemistry; carbon mineralization; deep sea; resource quality; stable isotope
21.  Characterization of C1-Metabolizing Prokaryotic Communities in Methane Seep Habitats at the Kuroshima Knoll, Southern Ryukyu Arc, by Analyzing pmoA, mmoX, mxaF, mcrA, and 16S rRNA Genes 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2004;70(12):7445-7455.
Samples from three submerged sites (MC, a core obtained in the methane seep area; MR, a reference core obtained at a distance from the methane seep; and HC, a gas-bubbling carbonate sample) at the Kuroshima Knoll in the southern Ryuku arc were analyzed to gain insight into the organisms present and the processes involved in this oxic-anoxic methane seep environment. 16S rRNA gene analyses by quantitative real-time PCR and clone library sequencing revealed that the MC core sediments contained abundant archaea (∼34% of the total prokaryotes), including both mesophilic methanogens related to the genus Methanolobus and ANME-2 members of the Methanosarcinales, as well as members of the δ-Proteobacteria, suggesting that both anaerobic methane oxidation and methanogenesis occurred at this site. In addition, several functional genes connected with methane metabolism were analyzed by quantitative competitive-PCR, including the genes encoding particulate methane monooxygenase (pmoA), soluble methane monooxygenase (mmoX), methanol dehydrogenese (mxaF), and methyl coenzyme M reductase (mcrA). In the MC core sediments, the most abundant gene was mcrA (2.5 × 106 copies/g [wet weight]), while the pmoA gene of the type I methanotrophs (5.9 × 106 copies/g [wet weight]) was most abundant at the surface of the MC core. These results indicate that there is a very complex environment in which methane production, anaerobic methane oxidation, and aerobic methane oxidation all occur in close proximity. The HC carbonate site was rich in γ-Proteobacteria and had a high copy number of mxaF (7.1 × 106 copies/g [wet weight]) and a much lower copy number of the pmoA gene (3.2 × 102 copies/g [wet weight]). The mmoX gene was never detected. In contrast, the reference core contained familiar sequences of marine sedimentary archaeal and bacterial groups but not groups specific to C1 metabolism. Geochemical characterization of the amounts and isotopic composition of pore water methane and sulfate strongly supported the notion that in this zone both aerobic methane oxidation and anaerobic methane oxidation, as well as methanogenesis, occur.
PMCID: PMC535202  PMID: 15574947
22.  Single-cell genomics reveals features of a Colwellia species that was dominant during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill 
During the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a deep-sea hydrocarbon plume developed resulting in a rapid succession of bacteria. Colwellia eventually supplanted Oceanospirillales, which dominated the plume early in the spill. These successional changes may have resulted, in part, from the changing composition and abundance of hydrocarbons over time. Colwellia abundance peaked when gaseous and simple aromatic hydrocarbons increased, yet the metabolic pathway used by Colwellia in hydrocarbon disposition is unknown. Here we used single-cell genomics to gain insights into the genome properties of a Colwellia enriched during the DWH deep-sea plume. A single amplified genome (SAG) of a Colwellia cell isolated from a DWH plume, closely related (avg. 98% 16S rRNA gene similarity) to other plume Colwellia, was sequenced and annotated. The SAG was similar to the sequenced isolate Colwellia psychrerythraea 34H (84% avg. nucleotide identity). Both had genes for denitrification, chemotaxis, and motility, adaptations to cold environments and a suite of nutrient acquisition genes. The Colwellia SAG may be capable of gaseous and aromatic hydrocarbon degradation, which contrasts with a DWH plume Oceanospirillales SAG which encoded non-gaseous n-alkane and cycloalkane degradation pathways. The disparate hydrocarbon degradation pathways are consistent with hydrocarbons that were abundant at different times in the deep-sea plume; first, non-gaseous n-alkanes and cycloalkanes that could be degraded by Oceanospirillales, followed by gaseous, and simple aromatic hydrocarbons that may have been degraded by Colwellia. These insights into the genomic properties of a Colwellia species, which were supported by existing metagenomic sequence data from the plume and DWH contaminated sediments, help further our understanding of the successional changes in the dominant microbial players in the plume over the course of the DWH spill.
PMCID: PMC4085564  PMID: 25071745
DWH oil spill; Colwellia; single-cell genomics; deep-sea plume; hydrocarbon degradation; bacteria
23.  Biomarkers in Natural Fish Populations Indicate Adverse Biological Effects of Offshore Oil Production 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(5):e19735.
Despite the growing awareness of the necessity of a sustainable development, the global economy continues to depend largely on the consumption of non-renewable energy resources. One such energy resource is fossil oil extracted from the seabed at offshore oil platforms. This type of oil production causes continuous environmental pollution from drilling waste, discharge of large amounts of produced water, and accidental spills.
Methods and principal findings
Samples from natural populations of haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) and Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) in two North Sea areas with extensive oil production were investigated. Exposure to and uptake of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were demonstrated, and biomarker analyses revealed adverse biological effects, including induction of biotransformation enzymes, oxidative stress, altered fatty acid composition, and genotoxicity. Genotoxicity was reflected by a hepatic DNA adduct pattern typical for exposure to a mixture of PAHs. Control material was collected from a North Sea area without oil production and from remote Icelandic waters. The difference between the two control areas indicates significant background pollution in the North Sea.
It is most remarkable to obtain biomarker responses in natural fish populations in the open sea that are similar to the biomarker responses in fish from highly polluted areas close to a point source. Risk assessment of various threats to the marine fish populations in the North Sea, such as overfishing, global warming, and eutrophication, should also take into account the ecologically relevant impact of offshore oil production.
PMCID: PMC3100293  PMID: 21625421
24.  Comparative Composition, Diversity and Trophic Ecology of Sediment Macrofauna at Vents, Seeps and Organic Falls 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(4):e33515.
Sediments associated with hydrothermal venting, methane seepage and large organic falls such as whale, wood and plant detritus create deep-sea networks of soft-sediment habitats fueled, at least in part, by the oxidation of reduced chemicals. Biological studies at deep-sea vents, seeps and organic falls have looked at macrofaunal taxa, but there has yet to be a systematic comparison of the community-level attributes of sediment macrobenthos in various reducing ecosystems. Here we review key similarities and differences in the sediment-dwelling assemblages of each system with the goals of (1) generating a predictive framework for the exploration and study of newly identified reducing habitats, and (2) identifying taxa and communities that overlap across ecosystems. We show that deep-sea seep, vent and organic-fall sediments are highly heterogeneous. They sustain different geochemical and microbial processes that are reflected in a complex mosaic of habitats inhabited by a mixture of specialist (heterotrophic and symbiont-associated) and background fauna. Community-level comparisons reveal that vent, seep and organic-fall macrofauna are very distinct in terms of composition at the family level, although they share many dominant taxa among these highly sulphidic habitats. Stress gradients are good predictors of macrofaunal diversity at some sites, but habitat heterogeneity and facilitation often modify community structure. The biogeochemical differences across ecosystems and within habitats result in wide differences in organic utilization (i.e., food sources) and in the prevalence of chemosynthesis-derived nutrition. In the Pacific, vents, seeps and organic-falls exhibit distinct macrofaunal assemblages at broad-scales contributing to ß diversity. This has important implications for the conservation of reducing ecosystems, which face growing threats from human activities.
PMCID: PMC3319539  PMID: 22496753
25.  Anaerobic oxidation of short-chain alkanes in hydrothermal sediments: potential influences on sulfur cycling and microbial diversity 
Short-chain alkanes play a substantial role in carbon and sulfur cycling at hydrocarbon-rich environments globally, yet few studies have examined the metabolism of ethane (C2), propane (C3), and butane (C4) in anoxic sediments in contrast to methane (C1). In hydrothermal vent systems, short-chain alkanes are formed over relatively short geological time scales via thermogenic processes and often exist at high concentrations. The sediment-covered hydrothermal vent systems at Middle Valley (MV, Juan de Fuca Ridge) are an ideal site for investigating the anaerobic oxidation of C1–C4 alkanes, given the elevated temperatures and dissolved hydrocarbon species characteristic of these metalliferous sediments. We examined whether MV microbial communities oxidized C1–C4 alkanes under mesophilic to thermophilic sulfate-reducing conditions. Here we present data from discrete temperature (25, 55, and 75°C) anaerobic batch reactor incubations of MV sediments supplemented with individual alkanes. Co-registered alkane consumption and sulfate reduction (SR) measurements provide clear evidence for C1–C4 alkane oxidation linked to SR over time and across temperatures. In these anaerobic batch reactor sediments, 16S ribosomal RNA pyrosequencing revealed that Deltaproteobacteria, particularly a novel sulfate-reducing lineage, were the likely phylotypes mediating the oxidation of C2–C4 alkanes. Maximum C1–C4 alkane oxidation rates occurred at 55°C, which reflects the mid-core sediment temperature profile and corroborates previous studies of rate maxima for the anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM). Of the alkanes investigated, C3 was oxidized at the highest rate over time, then C4, C2, and C1, respectively. The implications of these results are discussed with respect to the potential competition between the anaerobic oxidation of C2–C4alkanes with AOM for available oxidants and the influence on the fate of C1 derived from these hydrothermal systems.
PMCID: PMC3653109  PMID: 23717305
hydrothermal vent; metalliferous sediments; Juan de Fuca Ridge; short-chain alkanes; sulfate reduction

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