Effects of hydrostatic pressure on pure cultures of prokaryotes have been studied extensively but impacts at the community level in the ocean are less well defined. Here we consider hydrostatic pressure effects on natural communities containing both unadapted (piezosensitive) prokaryotes originating from surface water and adapted (including piezophilic) prokaryotes from the deep sea. Results from experiments mimicking pressure changes experienced by particle-associated prokaryotes during their descent through the water column show that rates of degradation of organic matter (OM) by surface-originating microorganisms decrease with sinking. Analysis of a much larger data set shows that, under stratified conditions, deep-sea communities adapt to in situ conditions of high pressure, low temperature and low OM. Measurements made using decompressed samples and atmospheric pressure thus underestimate in situ activity. Exceptions leading to overestimates can be attributed to deep mixing events, large influxes of surface particles, or provision of excessive OM during experimentation. The sediment-water interface, where sinking particles accumulate, will be populated by a mixture of piezosensitive, piezotolerant and piezophilic prokaryotes, with piezophilic activity prevailing deeper within sediment. A schematic representation of how pressure shapes prokaryotic communities in the ocean is provided, allowing a reasonably accurate interpretation of the available activity measurements.
© 2013 Society for Applied Microbiology and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.