The South Pacific Gyre (SPG) contains the lowest cell concentrations and lowest rates of microbial activity ever encountered in shallowly-buried marine sediment. However, the electron donors that sustain its subseafloor microbial ecosystem are not fully constrained. In recognition of the importance of this natural laboratory, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) selected the SPG as the target of its first riser-less expedition solely dedicated to study of subseafloor life (Expedition 329).

This Expedition Objective Research (EOR) proposal has one fundamental objective: To quantify the extent to which subseafloor sedimentary communities of the SPG may be supplied with H2 by water radiolysis.

In addressing this objective, the following testable hypotheses are posed:

1) H2 is produced by water radiolysis at significant rates relative to other electron donors in the organic-poor subseafloor sediment of the SPG.

2) At some depth below seafloor, the production rate of H2 by water radiolysis exceeds the availability of other electron donors (organic matter and reduced minerals).

To test these hypotheses, this work will focus on four related activities: (1) Precise and accurate quantification of radioactive element concentrations and sedimentary grain size, (2) Quantification of alpha particle (4He) fluxes from the sediment to the interstitial water, (3) Refinement of H2 yield calculations by experimental radiation of representative SPG sediment samples, and (4) Quantification of the potential importance of radiolytic H2 to the subseafloor sedimentary communities by direct comparison of calculated H2 yields to shipboard H2 concentration data and rates of organic matter oxidation derived from shipboard data.

This study will advance understanding of the subsurface world by (i) placing a clear boundary on the extent to which subseafloor sedimentary life may be energetically independent of the surface photosynthetic world and (ii) advancing understanding of the sources of microbial energy in sediment of Earth?s largest oceanic province. Because electron donor fluxes are so low in SPG sediment, this research may also help to constrain the limits to life.

Broader Impacts, Education, and Data Management This project will fully answer one of the primary objectives of IODP Expedition 329 by quantifying the production of H2 by water radiolysis in SPG sediment. It will address another of the expedition's primary objectives by advancing understanding of the habitats and rates of metabolic activities in this very large low-energy environment. The project will heighten collaborations between URI (an EPSCoR institution), BU, and our Exp. 329 collaborators from throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia. The project will have strong training impacts. Graduate students will be integral project members. Undergraduates will be included as thesis advisees, work-study students, paid laboratory assistants, nationally competed NSF-sponsored GSO Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows, and through our courses. The URI Geobiology website will expand to include focus on this project. Results will be presented to audiences via guest lectures and the Internet. Significant findings will be submitted for publication beginning in the second year of the project. To ensure accessibility to the scientific community and the public, data will be deposited into the SedDB database and samples will be catalogued through SESAR.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
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Thomas Janecek
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University of Rhode Island
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