Date Published:April 1, 2003
The delicate balance of the major global biogeochemical cycles greatly depends on the transformation of Earth materials at or near its surface. The formation and degradation of rocks, minerals, and organic matter are pivotal for the balance, maintenance, and future of many of these cycles. Microorganisms also play a crucial role, determining the transformation rates, pathways, and end products of these processes. While most of Earth's crust is oceanic rather than terrestrial, few studies have been conducted on ocean crust transformations, particularly those mediated by endolithic (rock-hosted) microbial communities. The biology and geochemistry of deep-sea and sub-seafloor environments are generally more complicated to study than in terrestrial or near-coastal regimes. As a result, fewer, and more targeted, studies usually homing in on specific sites, are most common. We are studying the role of endolithic microorganisms in weathering seafloor crustal materials, including basaltic glass and sulfide minerals, both in the vicinity of seafloor hydrothermal vents and off-axis at unsedimented (young) ridge flanks. We are using molecular phylogenetic surveys and laboratory culture studies to define the size, diversity, physiology, and distribution of microorganisms in the shallow ocean crust. Our data show that an unexpected diversity of microorganisms directly participate in rock weathering at the seafloor, and imply that endolithic microbial communities contribute to rock, mineral, and carbon transformations.