Productive Microbes a Key Source of Food in Deep Sea Communities

The manipulator arm on the remotely operated, deep-sea vehicle Jason uses an Isobaric Gas-Tight (IGT) sampler to collect samples of fluids and microbes spewing from hydrothermal vents surrounded by a community of tubeworms at a site called “Crab Spa” on the East Pacific Rise. IGTs are designed to maintain the microbes at the pressure of their natural environment. Scientists added various chemicals into the IGTs to measure how fast microbes consumed chemicals and converted them into biomass. (Photo courtesy of Stefan Sievert, WHOI/NSF/ROVJason, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WOODS HOLE – Vast communities of subseafloor microbes miles beneath the surface of the ocean at deep-sea hot springs are converting chemicals into energy that allows deep-sea life to live and thrive in a world without sunlight.

Until recently, measuring the productivity of these microbe communities was nearly impossible, but a new study by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists show that these ecosystems are surprisingly productive and play a huge role in supporting life higher up the food chain in the deep ocean.

Researchers estimate that deep-sea hydrothermal vent microbial communities can produce more than 4,000 tons of organic carbon each day which is equivalent to the same amount of carbon in 200 blue whales.

The estimate makes these ecosystems among the ocean’s most productive on a per volume basis.

The microbes at vents get their energy to live and grow through chemosynthesis, feeding off a chemical cocktail of hot hydrothermal fluids emanating from the ocean’s crust.

They represent the base of the food web, providing nourishment for other organisms that require preformed organic matter – like humans do.

Given the important role these microbial communities play in the deep ocean, scientists are looking for new and more routine ways to measure productivity miles beneath the ocean surface.

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