Newly Discovered Deep-Sea Microbes Gobble Greenhouse Gases and Perhaps Oil Spills

Researchers have documented extensive diversity in the microbial communities living in the extremely hot, deep-sea sediments located in the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. This view of the Guaymas Basin seafloor was taken through the window of the Alvin submersible by Brett Baker in November 2018. (Image: Brett Baker)
Researchers have documented extensive diversity in the microbial communities living in the extremely hot, deep-sea sediments located in the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. This view of the Guaymas Basin seafloor was taken through the window of the Alvin submersible by Brett Baker in November 2018. (Image: Brett Baker)

Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute have discovered nearly two dozen new types of microbes, many of which use hydrocarbons, such as methane and butane, as energy sources to survive and grow — meaning the newly identified bacteria might be helping to limit the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and might one day be useful for cleaning up oil spills.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, researchers documented extensive diversity in the microbial communities living in the extremely hot, deep-sea sediments located in the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California. The team uncovered new microbial species that are so genetically different from those that have been previously studied that they represent new branches in the tree of life.

Many of these same species possess keen pollutant-eating powers, like other, previously identified microbes in the ocean and soil. Assistant professor of marine science Brett Baker, the paper’s primary investigator, said:

Picture of the deep-sea microbial community in the Guaymas Basin, with an updated tree of life including several new branches of life obtained from the hydrothermal vents. (Image: Brett Baker)

Picture of the deep-sea microbial community in the Guaymas Basin, with an updated tree of life including several new branches of life obtained from the hydrothermal vents. (Image: Brett Baker)

The new study, representing the largest-ever genomic sampling of Guaymas Basin sediments, was co-authored by former UT postdoctoral researcher Nina Dombrowski and University of North Carolina professor Andreas P. Teske. The researchers’ analysis of sediment from 2,000 meters below the surface, where volcanic activity raises temperatures to around 200°C, recovered 551 genomes, 22 of which represented new entries in the tree of life.

According to Baker, these new species were genetically different enough to represent new branches in the tree of life, and some were different enough to represent entirely new phyla. Baker, who earlier was part of a team that mapped the most comprehensive genomic tree of life to date, said:

Only about 0.1 percent of the world’s microbes can be cultured, which means there are thousands, maybe even millions, of microbes yet to be discovered. The samples were collected using the Alvin submersible, the same sub that found the Titanic, because the microbes live in extreme environments.

The Alvin deep-sea submersible awaits another collection run in the Guaymas Basin in November 2018. (Image: Brett Baker)

The Alvin deep-sea submersible awaits another collection run in the Guaymas Basin in November 2018. (Image: Brett Baker)

Teske, who collaborated with Baker and Dombrowski, has driven sample collection at Guaymas Basin for several years, working with scientists across the world who are using different approaches to study life there.

This month, Baker is part of a team on the Alvin sampling in areas of the basin that previously have never been studied. Baker said:

Provided by: University of Texas at Austin [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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