Significant contribution of Archaea to extant biomass in marine subsurface sediments

Nature. 2008 Aug 21;454(7207):991-4. doi: 10.1038/nature07174. Epub 2008 Jul 20.


Deep drilling into the marine sea floor has uncovered a vast sedimentary ecosystem of microbial cells. Extrapolation of direct counts of stained microbial cells to the total volume of habitable marine subsurface sediments suggests that between 56 Pg (ref. 1) and 303 Pg (ref. 3) of cellular carbon could be stored in this largely unexplored habitat. From recent studies using various culture-independent techniques, no clear picture has yet emerged as to whether Archaea or Bacteria are more abundant in this extensive ecosystem. Here we show that in subsurface sediments buried deeper than 1 m in a wide range of oceanographic settings at least 87% of intact polar membrane lipids, biomarkers for the presence of live cells, are attributable to archaeal membranes, suggesting that Archaea constitute a major fraction of the biomass. Results obtained from modified quantitative polymerase chain reaction and slot-blot hybridization protocols support the lipid-based evidence and indicate that these techniques have previously underestimated archaeal biomass. The lipid concentrations are proportional to those of total organic carbon. On the basis of this relationship, we derived an independent estimate of amounts of cellular carbon in the global marine subsurface biosphere. Our estimate of 90 Pg of cellular carbon is consistent, within an order of magnitude, with previous estimates, and underscores the importance of marine subsurface habitats for global biomass budgets.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Archaea / chemistry
  • Archaea / genetics
  • Archaea / physiology*
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Biomass*
  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Genes, Archaeal / genetics
  • Genes, Bacterial / genetics
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • Membrane Lipids / metabolism
  • Oceans and Seas
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics


  • Membrane Lipids
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Carbon