The role of deep-sea microbial communities in the weathering of hydrothermal vent deposits is assessed using mineralogical and molecular biological techniques. The phylogenetic diversity of varied deep-sea bare rock habitats associated with the oceanic spreading centre at the Juan de Fuca Ridge was accessed using restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) and rDNA sequencing. The mineralogical composition of the deposits used for phylogenetic analysis was determined by X-ray diffraction in order to determine the proportion and composition of sulphide minerals, and to determine degree of alteration associated with each sample. RFLP analyses resulted in 15 unique patterns, or Operational Taxonomic Units (OTUs). Most environments examined were dominated by only one or two OTUs, which often comprised approximately 60% of the rDNA clones generated from that environment. Only one environment, the Mound, had a representative rDNA clone from every OTU identified in this study. For one other environment, ODP sediments, rDNA clones were all contained in a single OTU. The diversity of the microbial community is found to decrease with decreasing reactivity of the sulphide component in the samples and with increasing presence of alteration products. Phylogenetic analyses reveal that OTUs contain representatives of the epsilon-, beta- and gamma-subdivisions of the Proteobacteria. OTU1, which dominates clone libraries from every environment and is increasingly dominant with increasing rock alteration, is closely related to a group of chemolithoautotrophic iron-oxidizing bacteria that have been recently isolated from the deep sea. The apparent abundance and widespread distribution within the samples examined of the putative iron-oxidizing bacteria that may be represented by OTU1 suggests that this physiological group could play an important role in rock-weathering and carbon fixation at the seafloor.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We thank J. Seewald for inviting our participation in the cruise that allowed this work to be initiated (sponsored by NSF; OCE-9906752), and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions. Funding was provided by the NSF grants OCE-0096992 (to K.J.E.). This is WHOI contribution number 10906.