Hollywood director James Cameron found little evidence of life when he descended nearly 11,000 metres to the deepest point in the world's oceans last year. If only he had taken a microscope and looked just a few centimetres deeper.
Ronnie Glud at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, and his colleagues, have discovered unusually high levels of microbial activity in the sediments at the site of Cameron's dive – Challenger Deep at the bottom of the western Pacific's Mariana Trench.
Glud's team dispatched autonomous sensors and sample collectors into the trench to measure microbial activity in the top 20 centimetres of sediment on the sea bed. The pressure there is almost 1100 times greater than at the surface. Finding food, however, is an even greater challenge than surviving high pressures for anything calling the trench home.
Any nourishment must come in the form of detritus falling from the surface ocean, most of which is consumed by other organisms on the way down. Only 1 per cent of the organic matter generated at the surface reaches the sea floor's abyssal plains, 3000 to 6000 metres below sea level. So what are the chances of organic matter making it even deeper, into the trenches that form when one tectonic plate ploughs beneath another?
Surprisingly, the odds seem high. Glud's team compared sediment samples taken from Challenger Deep and a reference site on the nearby abyssal plain. The bacteria at Challenger Deep were around 10 times as abundant as those on the abyssal plain, with every cubic centimetre of sediment containing 10 million microbes. The deep microbes were also twice as active as their shallower kin.
These figures make sense, says Glud, because ocean trenches are particularly good at capturing sediment. They are broad as well as deep, with a steep slope down to the deepest point, so any sediment falling on their flanks quickly cascades down to the bottom in muddy avalanches. Although the sediment may contain no more than 1 per cent organic matter, so much of it ends up at Challenger Deep that the level of microbial activity shoots up.