Background: Subsurface fluids from deep-sea hydrocarbon seeps undergo methane- and sulfur-cycling microbial transformations near the sediment surface. Hydrocarbon seep habitats are naturally patchy, with a mosaic of active seep sediments and non-seep sediments. Microbial community shifts and changing activity patterns on small spatial scales from seep to non-seep sediment remain to be examined in a comprehensive habitat study.
Methodology/principal findings: We conducted a transect of biogeochemical measurements and gene expression related to methane- and sulfur-cycling at different sediment depths across a broad Beggiatoa spp. mat at Mississippi Canyon 118 (MC118) in the Gulf of Mexico. High process rates within the mat ( approximately 400 cm and approximately 10 cm from the mat's edge) contrasted with sharply diminished activity at approximately 50 cm outside the mat, as shown by sulfate and methane concentration profiles, radiotracer rates of sulfate reduction and methane oxidation, and stable carbon isotopes. Likewise, 16S ribosomal rRNA, dsrAB (dissimilatory sulfite reductase) and mcrA (methyl coenzyme M reductase) mRNA transcripts of sulfate-reducing bacteria (Desulfobacteraceae and Desulfobulbaceae) and methane-cycling archaea (ANME-1 and ANME-2) were prevalent at the sediment surface under the mat and at its edge. Outside the mat at the surface, 16S rRNA sequences indicated mostly aerobes commonly found in seawater. The seep-related communities persisted at 12-20 cm depth inside and outside the mat. 16S rRNA transcripts and V6-tags reveal that bacterial and archaeal diversity underneath the mat are similar to each other, in contrast to oxic or microoxic habitats that have higher bacterial diversity.
Conclusions/significance: The visual patchiness of microbial mats reflects sharp discontinuities in microbial community structure and activity over sub-meter spatial scales; these discontinuities have to be taken into account in geochemical and microbiological inventories of seep environments. In contrast, 12-20 cm deep in the sediments microbial communities performing methane-cycling and sulfate reduction persist at lower metabolic rates regardless of mat cover, and may increase activity rapidly when subsurface flow changes.