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DNA in marine sediment contains both fossil sequences and sequences from organisms that live in the sediment. The demarcation between these two pools and their respective rates of turnover are generally unknown. We address these issues by comparing the total extractable DNA pool to the fraction of sequenced chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) in sediment from two sites in the Bering Sea. We assume that cpDNA is a tracer of non-reproducing fossil DNA. Given >150,000 sequence reads per sample, cpDNA is easily detectable in the shallowest samples but decays with depth, suggesting that sequencing-based richness assessments of communities in deep subseafloor sediment are relatively unaffected by fossil DNA. The initial decrease in cpDNA reads suggests that most cpDNA decays within 100–200 k.y. of deposition. However, cpDNA from a few phylotypes, including some that match fossil diatoms, are present throughout the cored sediment, ranging in age to 1.4 Ma. The relative fraction of sequences composed by cpDNA decreases non-linearly with increasing sediment age, suggesting that detectable cpDNA becomes more recalcitrant with age. This can be explained by biological activity decreasing with sediment age and/or by preferential long-term survival of only the most thoroughly protected DNA. The association of cpDNA reads with published records of siliceous microfossils, including diatom spores, at the same sites suggests that microfossils may help to preserve DNA. This DNA may be useful for studies of paleoenvironmental conditions and biological evolution on time scales that approach or exceed 1 m.y.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.