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New study sheds light on how microbes in the deep ocean survive (and thrive) without sunlight.

Dr Rachael Lappan in the lab

Not photosynthesis but rather, chemosynthesis is the key to life in the deepest depths of the ocean

It has always been a mystery as to how microbes growing in deepest parts of the sea survive, with no sunlight. A new study, from researchers at the Monash University published in the journal Nature Microbiology, shows that a distinct process called chemosynthesis – growth using inorganic compounds – fuels microbes in these darkest depths.

The five-year study, led by Dr Rachael Lappan and Professor Chris Greening from the Biomedicine Discovery Institute, reveals that two common gases – hydrogen and carbon monoxide – serve as the fuel for trillions of microbes in the ocean from the tropics to the poles.

According to Professor Greening, until now most scientists have believed that ocean microbial life is primarily driven by photosynthesis (growth by using light energy). But what about those regions so deep that light can’t penetrate or so nutrient-poor that algae can’t thrive? They showed in this study that instead chemosynthesis is dominant in these regions.

“Hydrogen and carbon monoxide in fact “fed” microbes in all regions we’ve looked at: from urban bays to around tropical islands to hundreds of meters below the surface. Some can even be found beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves.”

How the research was conducted

The study involved combining chemical measurements during oceanic voyages with laboratory-based characterization of microbial cultures. The research team also extensively used metagenomic sequencing, which tells them the genetic blueprints of all the microbes present in each region of the ocean. Researchers found the genes that enable hydrogen consumption across eight distantly related types of microbes, known as phyla, and this survival strategy becomes more common the deeper they live.

For this project, the researchers were inspired by their previous work on soil bacteria. Professor Greening and colleagues have previously shown most soil bacteria can live by consuming hydrogen and carbon monoxide from the atmosphere.

“The surface layers of the world’s oceans generally contain high levels of dissolved hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases due to various geological and biological processes. So, it made sense that oceanic bacteria used the same gases as their terrestrial cousins.”

Could this be how life evolved?

These findings provide insights into how life evolved. Professor Greening proposes this theory.

“The first life probably emerged in deep-sea vents using hydrogen, not sunlight, as the energy source. It’s incredible that, 3.7 billion years later, so many microbes in the oceans are still using this high-energy gas and we’ve completely overlooked this until now.”

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Dr Rachael Lappan in the lab via Monash University with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

Dr Rachael Lappan in the lab via Monash University with usage type - Public Domain


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