Subseafloor microbes beneath active hydrothermal vents are thought to live near the upper temperature limit for life on Earth. We drilled and cored the Iheya North hydrothermal field in the Mid-Okinawa Trough, and examined the phylogenetic compositions and the products of metabolic functions of sub-vent microbial communities. We detected microbial cells, metabolic activities and molecular signatures only in the shallow sediments down to 15.8 m below the seafloor at a moderately distant drilling site from the active hydrothermal vents (450 m). At the drilling site, the profiles of methane and sulfate concentrations and the δ 13 C and δD isotopic compositions of methane suggested the laterally flowing hydrothermal fluids and the in situ microbial anaerobic methane oxidation. In situ measurements during the drilling constrain the current bottom temperature of the microbially habitable zone to ∼45 °C. However, in the past, higher temperatures of 106-198 °C were possible at the depth, as estimated from geochemical thermometry on hydrothermally altered clay minerals. The 16S rRNA gene phylotypes found in the deepest habitable zone are related to those of thermophiles, although sequences typical of known hyperthermophilic microbes were absent from the entire core. Overall our results shed new light on the distribution and composition of the boundary microbial community close to the high-temperature limit for habitability in the subseafloor environment of a hydrothermal field.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics