05 October 2016
Sulfate reduction is the predominant anaerobic microbial process of organic matter mineralization in marine sediments, with recent studies revealing that sulfate reduction not only occurs in sulfate-rich sediments, but even extends to deeper, methanogenic sediments at very low background concentrations of sulfate. Using samples retrieved off the Shimokita Peninsula, Japan, during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition 337, we measured potential sulfate reduction rates by slurry incubations with 35S-labeled sulfate in deep methanogenic sediments between 1276.75 and 2456.75 meters below the seafloor. Potential sulfate reduction rates were generally extremely low (mostly below 0.1 pmol cm −3 d −1) but showed elevated values (up to 1.8 pmol cm −3 d −1) in a coal-bearing interval (Unit III). A measured increase in hydrogenase activity in the coal-bearing horizons coincided with this local increase in potential sulfate reduction rates. This paired enzymatic response suggests that hydrogen is a potentially important electron donor for sulfate reduction in the deep coalbed biosphere. By contrast, no stimulation of sulfate reduction rates was observed in treatments where methane was added as an electron donor. In the deep coalbeds, small amounts of sulfate might be provided by a cryptic sulfur cycle. The isotopically very heavy pyrites (δ 34S = +43‰) found in this horizon is consistent with its formation via microbial sulfate reduction that has been continuously utilizing a small, increasingly 34S-enriched sulfate reservoir over geologic time scales. Although our results do not represent in-situ activity, and the sulfate reducers might only have persisted in a dormant, spore-like state, our findings show that organisms capable of sulfate reduction have survived in deep methanogenic sediments over more than 20 Ma. This highlights the ability of sulfate-reducers to persist over geological timespans even in sulfate-depleted environments. Our study moreover represents the deepest evidence of a potential for sulfate reduction in marine sediments to date.