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    Interdisciplinary research

    Geophysical constraints on microbial biomass in subseafloor sediments and coal seams down to 2.5 km off Shimokita Peninsula, Japan

    Tanikawa W, Tadai O, Morono Y, Hinrichs K, Inagaki F

    Deep biosphere, Lignite coal, Limits of life, Microbial community, Pore size, Porosity, Permeability, Habitability


    (a) Cell concentration, (b) in-situ permeability, and (c) pore size at Site C0020 on Chikyu shakedown cruise CK06-06 and IODP Expedition 337.


    Relationship between cell density and in-situ physical properties and their semi-empirical curves in subseafloor sediments down to 2.5 km off Shimokita Peninsula, Japan: (a) in-situ porosity, and (b) in-situ permeability. Gray shading denotes cell concentration below the minimum qualification limit.

    To understand the ability of microbial life to inhabit a deep subseafloor coalbed sedimentary basin, the correlation between fluid transport properties and the abundance of microbial cells was investigated based on core samples collected down to about 2.5 km below the seafloor during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 337 off the Shimokita Peninsula, Japan. The overall depth profiles for porosity and permeability exhibited a decreasing trend with increasing depth. However, at depths greater than 1.2 km beneath the seafloor, the transport characteristics of the sediments were highly variable, with the permeability ranging from 10−16 to 10−22 m2 and the pore size ranging from < 0.01 to 100 μm. This is mainly attributed to the diversity of the lithology, which exhibits a range of pore sizes and pore geometries. Fracture channels in coal seams had the highest permeability, while shale deposits had the smallest pore size and lowest permeability. A positive correlation between permeability and pore size was confirmed by the Kozeny-Carman equation. Cell abundance at shallower depths was positively correlated with porosity and permeability, and was less strongly correlated with pore size. These findings suggest that one of the factors affecting the decrease in microbial cell abundance with increasing depth was a reduction in nutrient and water supply to indigenous microbial communities as a result of a decrease in porosity and permeability due to sediment compaction. Anomalous regions with relatively high cell concentrations in coal-bearing units could be explained by the higher permeability and larger pore size for these units compared to the surrounding sediments. Nutrient transport through permeable cleats in coal layers might occur upwards toward the upper permeable sandstone layers, which are well suited for sustaining sizable microbial populations. Conversely, impermeable shale and siltstone with small pores (< 0.2 μm, which is smaller than microbial cell size) may act as barriers to water and energy-yielding substrates for deep microbial life. We propose that the pore size and permeability govern the threshold for microbial habitability in the deep subseafloor sedimentary biosphere.