Geochemical constraints on chemolithoautotrophic metabolism by microorganisms in seafloor hydrothermal systems

Thomas M. McCollom, Everett L. Shock

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385 Scopus citations


Mixing of hydrothermal fluids and seawater at the ocean floor, combined with slow reaction kinetics for oxidation/reduction reactions, provides a source of metabolic energy for chemolithotrophic microorganisms which are the primary biomass producers for an extensive submarine ecosystem that is essentially independent of photosynthesis. Thermodynamic models are used to explore geochemical constraints on the amount of metabolic energy potentially available from chemosynthetic reactions involving S, C, Fe, and Mn compounds during mixing of hydrothermal fluids with seawater. For the vent fluid used in the calculations (EPR 21°N OBS), the model indicates that mixing environments are favorable for oxidation of H2S, CH4, Fe2+ and Mn2+ only below ∼38°C, with methanogenesis and reduction of sulfate or S° favored at higher temperatures, suggesting that environments dominated by mixing provide habitats for mesophilic (but not thermophilic) aerobes and thermophilic (but not mesophilic) anaerobes. A maximum of ∼760 cal per kilogram vent fluid is available from sulfide oxidation while between 8 and 35 cal/kg vent fluid is available from methanotrophy, methanogenesis, oxidation of Fe or Mn, or sulfate reduction. The total potential for chemosynthetic primary production at deep-sea hydrothermal vents globally is estimated to be about 1013 g biomass per year, which represents ∼0.02% of the global primary production by photosynthesis in the oceans. Thermophilic methanogens and sulfate- and S°-reducers are likely to be the predominant organisms in the walls of vent chimneys and in the diffuse mixing zones beneath warm vents, where biological processes may contribute to the high methane concentrations of vent fluids and heavy 34S/32S ratios of vent sulfide minerals. The metabolic processes taking place in these systems may be analogs of the first living systems to evolve on the Earth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4375-4391
Number of pages17
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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