Microbial life in deep granitic rock


  • Karsten Pedersen

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    1. Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, Department of General and Marine Microbiology, Göteborg University, Medicinaregatan 9C, S 413 90 Göteborg, Sweden
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Tel.: +46 (31) 773 2578; Fax: +46 (31) 773 2599; E-mail: pedersen@gmm.gu.se


Granitic rock has aquifers that run through faults and single or multiple fracture systems. They can orientate any way, vertically or horizontally and usually, only parts of hard rock fractures are water conducting. The remaining parts are filled by coatings of precipitated minerals, and clay and gouge material. Sampling hard rock is difficult and the risk of contamination due to intrusion of drilling fluids and cuttings in aquifers is obvious. A recent investigation of the potential for contamination of boreholes in granite during drilling operations, using molecular and growth methods, showed that predominating microorganisms in the drilling equipment were absent in groundwater from the drilled boreholes. The total number of bacteria found in subterranean granitic environments ranges from 103 up to 107 cells per ml groundwater, but the number of cultivable microorganisms is usually much lower. We have used culturing techniques with numeric taxonomy for the identification of cultivable microorganisms and the 16S rRNA gene technique to determine bacterial diversity in granitic groundwater. Members of the genera Bacillus, Desulfovibrio, Desulfomicrobium, Eubacterium, Methanomicrobium, Pseudomonas, Serratia and Shewanella have been found. Several biogeochemical processes in granitic rock have been demonstrated where microorganisms seem to be of major importance. One process is the mobilization of solid phase ferric iron oxy-hydroxides to liquid phase ferrous iron by iron reducing bacteria with organic carbon as electron donor. Another biogeochemical process found to be important is the reduction of sulfate to sulfide by sulfate reducing bacteria. They frequently appear in granitic aquifers at depths, and seem to prefer a moderate salinity, approximately 1%. When groundwater rich in ferrous iron, manganese(II) and reduced sulfur compounds reaches an oxygenated atmosphere such as an open tunnel, gradients suitable for chemolithotrophic bacteria develop. A third process is the conversion of carbon dioxide to organic material with hydrogen as the source of energy, possibly formed through radiolysis, mineral reactions or by volcanic activity. Recent results show that autotrophic methanogens, acetogenic bacteria and acetoclastic methanogens all are present and active in deep granitic rock. These observations announce the existence of a hydrogen driven deep biosphere in crystalline bedrock that is independent of photosynthesis. If this hypothesis is true, life may have been present and active deep down in the earth for a very long time, and it cannot be excluded that the place for the origin of life was a deep subterranean igneous rock environment (probably hot with a high pressure) rather than a surface environment.