Site icon Science & research news | Frontiers

Earth’s crust mineralogy drives hotspots for intraterrestrial life

By Lucie Sammicheli, science writer

DeMMO field coordinator Brittany Kruger, from the Desert Research Institute, sampling fracture fluids from a DeMMO borehole installation connected to biofilm cultivation experiments. Image: Matt Kapust

Researchers explored the distribution of biofilm communities in the continental deep subsurface. Their study highlights the presence of ‘hotspots’ for microbial life around iron-rich minerals. This pattern can allow us to better predict the distribution of intraterrestrial life on Earth, but also inform the search for extraterrestrial life in the subsurface of Mars.

Below the verdant surface and organic rich soil, life extends kilometers into Earth’s deep, rocky crust. The continental deep subsurface is likely one of the largest reservoirs of bacteria and archaea on Earth, many forming biofilms – like a microbial coating of the rock surface. This microbial population survives without light or oxygen and with minimal organic carbon sources, and can get energy by eating or respiring minerals. Distributed throughout the deep subsurface, these biofilms could represent between 20% and 80% of the total bacterial and archaeal biomass in the continental subsurface, according to the most recent estimate. But are these microbial populations spread evenly on rock surfaces, or do they prefer to colonize specific minerals in the rocks?

To answer this question, researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois led a study to analyze the growth and distribution of microbial communities in deep continental subsurface settings. This work shows that a host rocks mineral composition drives biofilm distribution, producing ‘hotspots’ of microbial life. The study was published in Frontiers in Microbiology.

Read original article
► Download original article (pdf)

Hotspots of microbial life

To realize this study, the researchers went 1.5km below the surface in the Deep Mine Microbial Observatory (DeMMO), housed within a former gold mine now known as the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), located in Lead, South Dakota. There, below-ground, the researchers cultivated biofilms on native rocks rich in iron and sulfur-bearing minerals. After six months, the researchers analyzed the microbial composition and physical characteristics of newly grown biofilms, as well as its distributions using microscopy, spectroscopy and spatial modelling approaches.

The spatial analyses conducted by the researchers revealed hotspots where the biofilm was denser. These hotspots correlate with iron-rich mineral grains in the rocks, highlighting some mineral preferences for biofilm colonization. “Our results demonstrate the strong spatial dependence of biofilm colonization on minerals in rock surfaces. We think that this spatial dependence is due to microbes getting their energy from the minerals they colonize,” explains Caitlin Casar, first author of the study.

Future research

Altogether, these results demonstrate that host rock mineralogy is a key driver of biofilm distribution, which could help improve estimates of the microbial distribution of the Earth’s deep continental subsurface. But leading intraterrestrial studies could also inform other topics. “Our findings could inform the contribution of biofilms to global nutrient cycles, and also have astrobiological implications as these findings provide insight into biomass distributions in a Mars analog system,” Casar adds.

Indeed, extraterrestrial life could exist in similar subsurface environments where the microorganisms are protected from both radiation and extreme temperatures. Mars, for example, has an iron and sulfur-rich composition similar to DeMMO’s rock formations, which we now know are capable of driving the formation of microbial hotspots below-ground.

DeMMO field team from left to right: Lily Momper, Brittany Kruger, and Caitlin Casar sampling fracture fluids from a DeMMO borehole installation. Image: Matt Kapust


About Desert Research Institute (DRI)

DRI is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit

REPUBLISHING GUIDELINES: Open access and sharing research is part of Frontiers’ mission. Unless otherwise noted, you can republish articles posted in the Frontiers news site — as long as you include a link back to the original research. Selling the articles is not allowed.

Exit mobile version