Measuring Bacterial Production in Deep-Sea Sediments using 3H-Thymidine Incorporation: Ecological Significance

Microb Ecol. 2001 Dec;42(4):549-561. doi: 10.1007/s00248-001-0022-z.


Bacteria play a major role in the decomposition of organic matter arriving at the deep-sea floor, and hence there is a need to determine accurate rates of bacterial production associated with sediment particles. However, sediment-based procedures are not well defined and sampling deep-sea sediments is technically difficult, time consuming, and expensive, often only producing relatively small amounts of undisturbed sediment for analysis. We describe and test a small-scale method (requiring 0.25 ml sediment) for the examination of bacterial production in deep-sea calcium carbonate rich sediments. Time course experiments showed variation in the period of linear [3H]thymidine uptake between 1 and 3 hr depending on station depth. The average concentration of natural thymidine in deep-sea sediments was 0.61 nmol per 0.5 ml slurry sample. Isotope dilution was significant, ranging between 26 and 51%. There was substantial small-scale (0.2-1.0 m) variation in deep-sea benthic bacterial [3H]thymidine incorporation rates (39%). Deep-sea surficial sediment bacterial production (assuming zero isotope dilution due to its potential high variability) in surficial sediments of the deep NE Atlantic varied between 0.014 and 0.48 mg C g-1 d-1 (mean = 0.23 mg C g-1 d-1) over 3 locations of depths between 1,092 and 3,572 m and at 3 times. Bacterial biomass varied between 1.1 and 12 mg C g-1 (mean = 6.1 mg C g-1). Bacterial growth rate estimates in these deep-sea sediments varied between 0.003 and 0.13 d-1 (mean = 0.050 d-1) giving doubling times of 5.3-216 d (mean = 44.5 d); which are similar to those of bacteria inhabiting waters in the upper mixed layer (2-<40 m) of the water column (2.6-57.8 d). comparison with shallow and coastal sea sediments (0.13-116 d) indicates that deep-sea sediment bacteria in the NE Atlantic are able to grow at rates similar to those in shallow sediment systems given sufficient food. However, the range is broader for deep-sea sediment bacteria, which may indicate a more "feast" and "fast" life than their counterparts in shallower environments. waters >2,000 m cover 60% of the Earth's surface; thus bacterial production in deep-sea sediments must contribute an important fraction of oceanic and global bacterial production. It is therefore important to establish an accurate method of measuring bacterial production so that the full roles and controls of bacteria from this environment can be determined.