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Heat-loving, oil-eating bacteria are watching from the seabed

Genetic analysis suggests that oil-eating bacteria that live thousands of feet below the seabed seep into the ocean, where they can then float along currents.


26 Aug 2022

Some deep-sea bacteria that live thousands of miles apart are genetically similar

Nature Image Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Heat-loving, oil-eating bacteria that live thousands of feet below the seabed seep into the ocean. They can then float in a dormant state before coming back to life in other distant oil reservoirs.

As many as 45 percent of all microbes live underground in hot rocks, subsisting on hydrocarbons and other chemical energy. This “deep biosphere” is the largest habitat on Earth, but little is known about the ecology of everything that lives there, he says. casey hubert at the University of Calgary in Canada. “You can’t put a radio collar on a microbe and follow it like you would a grizzly bear,” she says.

Hubert and his colleagues used a combination of acoustic surveys and genetic analyzes to better understand how bacteria in the deep biosphere move.

The researchers identified a section of continental shelf southwest of Nova Scotia where oil seeped through cracks into the ocean using an autonomous submarine equipped with sonar. They then shoveled mud from 14 sites on the seabed down a tube from their CCGS Hudson research vessel.

Heat-loving bacteria, called thermophiles, can become dormant spores when exposed to cold. To identify any thermophilic spores in the samples, the researchers heated them in the lab to 80°C (176°F). “That kills most things,” says Hubert. “But the spores wake up and start having a big party.” Some spores can remain viable in harsh environments for thousands and possibly millions of years.

The researchers sequenced portions of the revived bacteria’s DNA. The types of microbes in the oil-containing samples were different from those found in the oil-free samples. They also had genes that allowed them to break down oil. The researchers then looked at drill samples from oil reserves thousands of feet below ground and found that they contained the same types of microbes that feed on oil.

The finding is “very beautiful evidence” that the bacteria had been transported to the seabed from deep in the earth within oil seeps, a process that can take decades to hundreds of years, he says. John Hoffer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso in Chile.

The bacteria’s journey probably doesn’t end there. Ocean currents could move dormant bacteria to other parts of the seafloor, with most of them ending up nearby, but some traveling thousands of miles away, says Hubert.

Returned to the seabed, the spores would become buried in sediment and sink to warmer depths for millions of years. If they were lucky enough to land in an oil reservoir, the dormant spores could come back to life, says Hubert. “They are the hardest and most resistant forms of life that we know of.”

rika anderson at Carleton College in Minnesota says this “microbial dispersal loop” could help explain why bacteria found in oil reserves separated by thousands of kilometers they share more genes than bacteria in different close environments. When dormant bacteria from one reservoir reached another, they could exchange genes.

Magazine Reference: Progress of science, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn3485

Article modified on 29 Aug 2022

We have corrected the name of the research ship used by the team.

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