Phase-separation and -segregation (boiling/distillation of subseafloor hydrothermal fluids) represent the primary mechanisms causing intra-field variations in vent fluid compositions. To determine whether this geochemical process affects the formation of microbial communities, we examined the microbial communities at three different vent sites located within a few tens meters of one another. In addition to chimney structures, colonization devices capturing subseafloor communities entrained by the vent fluids were studied, using culture-dependent and -independent methods. Microbiological analyses demonstrated the occurrence of distinctive microbial communities in each of the hydrothermal niches. Within a chimney structure, there was a transition from a mixed community of mesophiles and thermophiles in the exterior parts to thermophiles in the interior. Beside the transition within a chimney structure, intra-field variations in microbial communities in vent fluids were apparent. Geochemical analysis demonstrated that different vent fluids have distinctive end-member compositions as a consequence of subseafloor phase-separation and -segregation, which were designated gas-depleted, normal and gas-enriched fluids. In comparison to gas-depleted and normal fluids, gas-enriched fluids harbored more abundant chemolithoautotrophs with gaseous component-dependent energy metabolism, such as hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis. Subseafloor phase-separation and -segregation may play a key role in supplying energy and carbon sources to vent-associated chemolithoautotrophs and subvent microbial communities.
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