"A meta-enzyme approach" is proposed as an ecological enzymatic method to explore the potential functions of microbial communities in extreme environments such as the deep marine subsurface. We evaluated a variety of extra-cellular enzyme activities of sediment slurries and isolates from a deep subseafloor sediment core. Using the new deep-sea drilling vessel "Chikyu", we obtained 365 m of core sediments that contained approximately 2% organic matter and considerable amounts of methane from offshore the Shimokita Peninsula in Japan at a water depth of 1,180 m. In the extra-sediment fraction of the slurry samples, phosphatase, esterase, and catalase activities were detected consistently throughout the core sediments down to the deepest slurry sample from 342.5 m below seafloor (mbsf). Detectable enzyme activities predicted the existence of a sizable population of viable aerobic microorganisms even in deep subseafloor habitats. The subsequent quantitative cultivation using solid media represented remarkably high numbers of aerobic, heterotrophic microbial populations (e.g., maximally 4.4x10(7) cells cm(-3) at 342.5 mbsf). Analysis of 16S rRNA gene sequences revealed that the predominant cultivated microbial components were affiliated with the genera Bacillus, Shewanella, Pseudoalteromonas, Halomonas, Pseudomonas, Paracoccus, Rhodococcus, Microbacterium, and Flexibacteracea. Many of the predominant and scarce isolates produced a variety of extra-cellular enzymes such as proteases, amylases, lipases, chitinases, phosphatases, and deoxyribonucleases. Our results indicate that microbes in the deep subseafloor environment off Shimokita are metabolically active and that the cultivable populations may have a great potential in biotechnology.