A newly discovered hydrothermal field called the Mariner field on the Valu Fa Ridge in the southern Lau Basin was explored and characterized with geochemical and microbiological analyses. The hydrothermal fluid discharging from the most vigorous vent (Snow Chimney, maximum discharge temperature 365°C) was boiling at the seafloor at a depth of 1908 m, and two distinct end-member hydrothermal fluids were identified. The fluid chemistry of the typical Cl-enriched and Cl-depleted hydrothermal fluids was analyzed, as was the mineralogy of the host chimney structures. The variability in the fluid chemistry was potentially controlled by the subseafloor phase-separation (vapor loss process) and the microbial community activities. Microbial community structures in three chimney structures were investigated using culture-dependent and - independent techniques. The small subunit (SSU) rRNA gene clone analysis revealed that both bacterial and archaeal rRNA gene communities on the chimney surfaces differed among three chimneys. Cultivation analysis demonstrated significant variation in the culturability of various microbial components among the chimneys, particularly of thermophilic H2-oxidizing (and S-oxidizing) chemolithoautotrophs such as the genera Aquifex and Persephonella. The physical and chemical environments of chimney surface habitats are still unresolved and do not directly extrapolate the environments of possible subseafloor habitats. However, the variability in microbial community found in the chimneys also provides an insight into the different biogeochemical interactions potentially affected by the phase separation of the hydrothermal fluids in the subseafloor hydrothermal habitats. In addition, comparison with other deep-sea hydrothermal systems revealed that the Mariner field microbial communities have unusual characteristics.
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