Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 933-950
Numerical models are employed to investigate sources of chemical energy for autotrophic microbial metabolism that develop during mixing of oxidized seawater with strongly reduced fluids discharged from ultramafic-hosted hydrothermal systems on the seafloor. Hydrothermal fluids in these systems are highly enriched in H2 and CH4 as a result of alteration of ultramafic rocks (serpentinization) in the subsurface. Based on the availability of chemical energy sources, inferences are made about the likely metabolic diversity, relative abundance, and spatial distribution of microorganisms within ultramafic-hosted systems.
Metabolic reactions involving H2 and CH4, particularly hydrogen oxidation, methanotrophy, sulfate reduction, and methanogenesis, represent the predominant sources of chemical energy during fluid mixing. Owing to chemical gradients that develop from fluid mixing, aerobic metabolisms are likely to predominate in low-temperature environments (<20-30*C), while anaerobes will dominate higher-temperature environments. Overall, aerobic metabolic reactions can supply up to 7 kJ of energy per kilogram of hydrothermal fluid, while anaerobic metabolic reactions can supply about 1 kJ, which is sufficient to support a maximum of 120 mg (dry weight) of primary biomass production by aerobic organisms and 20-30 mg biomass by anaerobes.
The results indicate that ultramafic-hosted systems are capable of supplying about twice as much chemical energy as analogous deep-sea hydrothermal systems hosted in basaltic rocks.