Functional gene surveys from ocean drilling expeditions – a review and perspective


Correspondence: Mark A. Lever, Center for Geomicrobiology, Institute of BioScience, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114, Bng 1535-1540, DK-8000 Århus C, Denmark.

Tel.: +45 2172 8473; fax: +45 8715 0201;



The vast majority of microbes inhabiting the subseafloor remain uncultivated and their energy sources unknown. Thus, a focus of ocean drilling expeditions over the past decade has been to characterize the distribution of microbes associated with specific metabolic reactions. An important question has been whether microbes involved in key microbial processes, such as sulfate reduction and methanogenesis, differ fundamentally from their counterparts in surface environments. To this end, functional genes of anaerobic methane cycling (mcrA), sulfate reduction (dsrAB), acetogenesis (fhs), and dehalorespiration (rdhA) have been examined. A compilation of existing functional gene data suggests that subseafloor microbes involved in anaerobic methane cycling, sulfate reduction, acetogenesis, and dehalorespiration are not fundamentally different from their counterparts in the surface world. Moreover, quantifications of mcrA and dsrAB suggest that, unless the majority of subseafloor microbes involved in methane cycling and sulfate reduction are too genetically divergent to be detected with conventional methods, these processes only support a small fraction (< 1%) of total microbial biomass in the deep biosphere. Ecological explanations for the observed trends, target processes and methods for future investigations, and strategies for tackling the unresolved issue of microbial contamination in samples obtained by ocean drilling are discussed.