Accessing the Subsurface Biosphere Within Rocks Undergoing Active Low-Temperature Serpentinization in the Samail Ophiolite (Oman Drilling Project)

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The Oman Drilling Project established an “Active Alteration” multi-borehole observatory in peridotites undergoing low-temperature serpentinization in the Samail Ophiolite. The highly serpentinized rocks are in contact with strongly reducing fluids. Distinct hydrological regimes, governed by differences in rock porosity and fracture density, give rise to steep redox (Eh +200 to −750 mV) and pH (pH range 8.5–11.2) gradients within the 300–400 m deep boreholes. The serpentinites and fluids host an active subsurface ecosystem. Microbial cell abundances in serpentinite vary at least six orders of magnitude, from ≤3.5 × 101 to 2.9 × 107 cells/g. Low levels of biological sulfate reduction (2–1,000 fmol/cm3/day) can be detected in rock cores, particularly in rocks in contact with reduced groundwaters with pH < 10.5. Thermodesulfovibrio is the predominant sulfate reducer identified via metagenomic sequencing of adjacent groundwater communities. We infer that transport and reaction of microbially generated sulfide with the serpentine and brucite assemblages gives rise to optical darkening and sulfide overprinting, including the formation of tochilinite-vallerite group minerals, potentially serving as an indicator that this system is inhabited by microbial life. Olivine mesh-cores replaced with ferroan brucite and minor awaruite, abundant veins containing hydroandradite garnet and polyhedral serpentine, and late-stage carbonate veins are suggested as targets for future spatially resolved life-detection investigations. The high-quality whole-round core samples that have been preserved can be further probed to define how life distributes itself and functions within a system where chemical disequilibria are sustained by low-temperature water/rock interaction, and how biosignatures of in situ microbial activity are generated.

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Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences