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Summary

Little is known about the fluids or the microbial communities present within potentially vast hydrothermal reservoirs contained in still-hot volcanic ocean crust beneath the flanks of the mid-ocean ridge. During Alvin dives in 2002, organic material attached to basalt was collected at low, near-ambient temperatures from an abyssal hill fault scarp in 0.5 Ma lithosphere on the western ridge flank of the East Pacific Rise. Mineral analysis by X-ray diffractometry and scanning electron microscopy revealed high-temperature (> 110°C) phases chalcopyrite (Cu5FeS4) and 1C pyrrhotite (Fe1-xS) within the fault scarp materials. A molecular survey of archaeal genes encoding 16S rRNA identified a diverse hyperthermophilic community, including groups within Crenarchaeota, Euryarchaeota, and Korarchaeota. We propose that the sulfide, metals and archaeal communities originated within a basalt-hosted subseafloor hydrothermal habitat beneath the East Pacific Rise ridge flank and were transported to the seafloor during a recent episode of hydrothermal venting from the abyssal hill fault. Additionally, inferred metabolisms from the fault scarp community suggest that an ecologically unique high-temperature archaeal biosphere may thrive beneath the young East Pacific Rise ridge flank and that abyssal hill fault scarps may present new opportunities for sampling for this largely unexplored microbial habitat.