Hydrogen highway in the deep sea

Max Planck Researchers discover hydrogen-powered symbiotic bacteria in deep-sea hydrothermal vent mussels

August 11, 2011

The search for new energy sources to power mankind’s increasing needs is currently a topic of immense interest. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are considered one of the most promising clean energy alternatives. While intensive research efforts have gone into developing ways to harness hydrogen energy to fuel our everyday lives, a natural example of a living hydrogen-powered ‘fuel cell’ has gone unnoticed. During a recent expedition to hydrothermal vents in the deep sea, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology and the Cluster of Excellence MARUM discovered mussels that have their own on-board ‘fuel cells’, in the form of symbiotic bacteria that use hydrogen as an energy source. Their results, which appear in the current issue of Nature, suggest that the ability to use hydrogen as a source of energy is widespread in hydrothermal vent symbioses.

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Deep-sea hydrothermal vents are formed at mid-ocean spreading centers where tectonic plates drift apart and new oceanic crust is created by magma rising from deep within the Earth. When seawater interacts with hot rock and rising magma, it becomes superheated, dissolving minerals out of the Earth’s crust. At hydrothermal vents, this superheated energy-laden seawater gushes back out into the ocean at temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius, forming black smoker chimneys where it comes into contact with cold deep-sea water. These hot fluids deliver inorganic compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonium, methane, iron and hydrogen to the oceans. The organisms living at hydrothermal vents oxidize these inorganic compounds to gain the energy needed to create organic matter from carbon dioxide. Unlike on land, where sunlight provides the energy for photosynthesis, in the dark depths of the sea, inorganic chemicals provide energy for life in a process called chemosynthesis.

When hydrothermal vents were first discovered more than 30 years ago, researchers were astounded to find that they were inhabited by lush communities of animals such as worms, mollusks and crustaceans, most of which were completely unknown to science. The first to investigate these animals quickly realized that the key to their survival was their symbiotic association with chemosynthetic microbes, which are the on-board power plants for hydrothermal vent animals. Until now, only two sources of energy were known to power chemosynthesis by symbiotic bacteria at hydrothermal vents: Hydrogen sulfide, used by sulfur-oxidizing symbionts, and methane, used by methane-oxidizing symbionts. “We have now discovered a third energy source” says Nicole Dubilier from the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen, who led the team responsible for this discovery.

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