Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Geochemically induced shifts in catabolic energy yields explain past ecological changes of diffuse vents in the East Pacific Rise 9°50'N area

Michael Hentscher* and Wolfgang Bach

Author Affiliations

Department of Geosciences, University of Bremen, Klagenfurter Straße, 28359 Bremen, Germany

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Geochemical Transactions 2012, 13:2  doi:10.1186/1467-4866-13-2

Published: 27 January 2012


The East Pacific Rise (EPR) at 9°50'N hosts a hydrothermal vent field (Bio9) where the change in fluid chemistry is believed to have caused the demise of a tubeworm colony. We test this hypothesis and expand on it by providing a thermodynamic perspective in calculating free energies for a range of catabolic reactions from published compositional data. The energy calculations show that there was excess H2S in the fluids and that oxygen was the limiting reactant from 1991 to 1997. Energy levels are generally high, although they declined in that time span. In 1997, sulfide availability decreased substantially and H2S was the limiting reactant. Energy availability dropped by a factor of 10 to 20 from what it had been between 1991 and 1995. The perishing of the tubeworm colonies began in 1995 and coincided with the timing of energy decrease for sulfide oxidizers. In the same time interval, energy availability for iron oxidizers increased by a factor of 6 to 8, and, in 1997, there was 25 times more energy per transferred electron in iron oxidation than in sulfide oxidation. This change coincides with a massive spread of red staining (putative colonization by Fe-oxidizing bacteria) between 1995 and 1997.

For a different cluster of vents from the EPR 9°50'N area (Tube Worm Pillar), thermodynamic modeling is used to examine changes in subseafloor catabolic metabolism between 1992 and 2000. These reactions are deduced from deviations in diffuse fluid compositions from conservative behavior of redox-sensitive species. We show that hydrogen is significantly reduced relative to values expected from conservative mixing. While H2 concentrations of the hydrothermal endmember fluids were constant between 1992 and 1995, the affinities for hydrogenotrophic reactions in the diffuse fluids decreased by a factor of 15 and then remained constant between 1995 and 2000. Previously, these fluids have been shown to support subseafloor methanogenesis. Our calculation results corroborate these findings and indicate that the 1992-1995 period was one of active growth of hydrogenotrophic communities, while the system was more or less at steady state between 1995 and 2000.