Influence of subsurface biosphere on geochemical fluxes from diffuse hydrothermal fluids
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Hydrothermal vents along mid-ocean systems host unique, highly productive biological communities, based on microbial chemoautotrophy, that thrive on the sulphur, metals, nitrogen and carbon emitted from the vents into the deep ocean. Geochemical studies of vents have centred on analyses of high-temperature, focused hydrothermal vents, which exhibit very high flow rates and are generally considered too hot for microbial life. Geochemical fluxes and metabolic activity associated with habitable, lower temperature diffuse fluids remain poorly constrained. As a result, little is known about the extent to which microbial communities, particularly in the subsurface, influence geochemical flux from more diffuse flows. Here, we estimate the net flux of methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen from diffuse and focused hydrothermal vents along the Juan de Fuca ridge, using an in situ mass spectrometer and flowmeter. We show that geochemical flux from diffuse vents can equal or exceed that emanating from hot, focused vents. Notably, hydrogen concentrations in fluids emerging from diffuse vents are 50% to 80% lower than predicted. We attribute the loss of hydrogen in diffuse vent fluids to microbial consumption in the subsurface, and suggest that subsurface microbial communities can significantly influence hydrothermal geochemical fluxes to the deep ocean.