mBio. 2022 Aug 1:e0035422. doi: 10.1128/mbio.00354-22. Online ahead of print.
The subseafloor is a vast habitat that supports microorganisms that have a global scale impact on geochemical cycles. Many of the endemic microbial communities inhabiting the subseafloor consist of small populations under growth-limited conditions. For small populations, stochastic evolutionary events can have large impacts on intraspecific population dynamics and allele frequencies. These conditions are fundamentally different from those experienced by most microorganisms in surface environments, and it is unknown how small population sizes and growth-limiting conditions influence evolution and population structure in the subsurface. Using a 2-year, high-resolution environmental time series, we examine the dynamics of microbial populations from cold, oxic crustal fluids collected from the subseafloor site North Pond, located near the mid-Atlantic ridge. Our results reveal rapid shifts in overall abundance, allele frequency, and strain abundance across the time points observed, with evidence for homologous recombination between coexisting lineages. We show that the subseafloor aquifer is a dynamic habitat that hosts microbial metapopulations that disperse frequently through the crustal fluids, enabling gene flow and recombination between microbial populations. The dynamism and stochasticity of microbial population dynamics in North Pond suggest that these forces are important drivers in the evolution of microbial populations in the vast subseafloor habitat. IMPORTANCE The cold, oxic subseafloor is an understudied habitat that is difficult to access, yet important to global biogeochemical cycles and starkly different compared to microbial habitats on the surface of the Earth. Our understanding of microbial evolution and population dynamics is largely molded by studies of microbes living in surface habitats that can host 10 to 1,000 times more microbial biomass than is frequently observed in the subsurface. This study provides an opportunity to observe population dynamics within a low biomass, growth-limited environment and reveals that microbial populations in the subseafloor are influenced by changes in selection pressure and gene sweeps. In addition, recombination between strains that have dispersed from elsewhere within the aquifer has an important impact on the evolution of microbial populations. Much of the microbial life on the planet exists under growth-limited conditions, and the subseafloor provides a natural laboratory to explore how life evolves in such environments.