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Microbial life associated with low-temperature alteration of ultramafic rocks in the Leka ophiolite complex


Corresponding author: F. L. Daae. Tel.: +47 55582663; fax: +47 5558 3707; e-mail:


Water–rock interactions in ultramafic lithosphere generate reduced chemical species such as hydrogen that can fuel subsurface microbial communities. Sampling of this environment is expensive and technically demanding. However, highly accessible, uplifted oceanic lithospheres emplaced onto continental margins (ophiolites) are potential model systems for studies of the subsurface biosphere in ultramafic rocks. Here, we describe a microbiological investigation of partially serpentinized dunite from the Leka ophiolite (Norway). We analysed samples of mineral coatings on subsurface fracture surfaces from different depths (10–160 cm) and groundwater from a 50-m-deep borehole that penetrates several major fracture zones in the rock. The samples are suggested to represent subsurface habitats ranging from highly anaerobic to aerobic conditions. Water from a surface pond was analysed for comparison. To explore the microbial diversity and to make assessments about potential metabolisms, the samples were analysed by microscopy, construction of small subunit ribosomal RNA gene clone libraries, culturing and quantitative-PCR. Different microbial communities were observed in the groundwater, the fracture-coating material and the surface water, indicating that distinct microbial ecosystems exist in the rock. Close relatives of hydrogen-oxidizing Hydrogenophaga dominated (30% of the bacterial clones) in the oxic groundwater, indicating that microbial communities in ultramafic rocks at Leka could partially be driven by H2 produced by low-temperature water–rock reactions. Heterotrophic organisms, including close relatives of hydrocarbon degraders possibly feeding on products from Fischer–Tropsch-type reactions, dominated in the fracture-coating material. Putative hydrogen-, ammonia-, manganese- and iron-oxidizers were also detected in fracture coatings and the groundwater. The microbial communities reflect the existence of different subsurface redox conditions generated by differences in fracture size and distribution, and mixing of fluids. The particularly dense microbial communities in the shallow fracture coatings seem to be fuelled by both photosynthesis and oxidation of reduced chemical species produced by water–rock reactions.