Skip directly to content

Minimize RSR Award Detail

Research Spending & Results

Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Stefan M Sievert
  • (508) 289-2305
  • Craig D Taylor
  • Jeffrey S Seewald
Award Date:09/12/2011
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 1,014,241
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 1,014,241
  • FY 2011=$1,014,241
Start Date:10/01/2011
End Date:09/30/2016
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.050
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:Dimensions: Collaborative Research: An Integrated Study of Energy Metabolism, Carbon Fixation, and Colonization Mechanisms in Chemosynthetic Microbial Communities at Deep-Sea Vents
Federal Award ID Number:1136727
DUNS ID:001766682
Parent DUNS ID:001766682
Program Officer:
  • David Garrison
  • (703) 292-7588

Awardee Location

County:Woods Hole
Awardee Cong. District:09

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Street:266 Woods Hole Rd
City:Woods Hole
County:Woods Hole
Cong. District:09

Abstract at Time of Award

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents, first discovered in 1977, are poster child ecosystems where microbial chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis is the primary source of organic carbon. Significant gaps remain in our understanding of the underlying microbiology and biogeochemistry of these fascinating ecosystems. Missing are the identification of specific microorganisms mediating critical reactions in various geothermal systems, metabolic pathways used by the microbes, rates of the catalyzed reactions, amounts of organic carbon being produced, and the larger role of these ecosystems in global biogeochemical cycles. To fill these gaps, the investigators will conduct a 3-year interdisciplinary, international hypothesis-driven research program to understand microbial processes and their quantitative importance at deep-sea vents. Specifically, the investigators will address the following objectives: 1. Determine key relationships between the taxonomic, genetic and functional diversity, as well as the mechanisms of energy and carbon transfer, in deep-sea hydrothermal vent microbial communities. 2. Identify the predominant metabolic pathways and thus the main energy sources driving chemoautotrophic production in high and low temperature diffuse flow vents. 3. Determine energy conservation efficiency and rates of aerobic and anaerobic chemosynthetic primary productivity in high and low temperature diffuse flow vents. 4. Determine gene expression patterns in diffuse-flow vent microbial communities during attachment to substrates and the development of biofilms. Integration: To address these objectives and to characterize the complexity of microbially-catalyzed processes at deep-sea vents at a qualitatively new level, we will pursue an integrated approach that couples an assessment of taxonomic diversity using cultivation-dependent and -independent approaches with methodologies that address genetic diversity, including a) metagenomics (genetic potential and diversity of community), b) single cell genomics (genetic potential and diversity of uncultured single cells), c) meta-transcriptomics and -proteomics (identification and function of active community members, realized potential of the community). To assess function and response to the environment, these approaches will be combined with 1) measurement of in situ rates of chemoautotrophic production, 2) geochemical characterization of microbial habitats, and 3) shipboard incubations under simulated in situ conditions (hypothesis testing under controlled physicochemical conditions). Network approaches and mathematical simulation will be used to reconstruct the metabolic network of the natural communities. A 3-day long project meeting towards the end of the second year will take place in Woods Hole. This Data Integration and Synthesis meeting will allow for progress reports and presentations from each PI, postdoc, and/or student, with the aim of synthesizing data generated to facilitate the preparation of manuscripts. Intellectual Merit. Combining the community expression profile with diversity and metagenomic analyses as well as process and habitat characterization will be unique to hydrothermal vent microbiology. The approach will provide new insights into the functioning of deep-sea vent microbial communities and the constraints regulating the interactions between the microbes and their abiotic and biotic environment, ultimately enabling us to put these systems into a quantitative framework and thus a larger global context. Broader Impacts. This is an interdisciplinary and collaborative effort between 4 US and 4 foreign institutions, creating unique opportunities for networking and fostering international collaborations. This will also benefit the involved students (2 graduate, several undergraduate) and 2 postdoctoral associates. This project will directly contribute to many educational and public outreach activities of the involved PIs, including the WHOI Dive & Discover program; single cell genomics workshops and Cafe Scientifique (Bigelow); REU (WHOI, Bigelow, CIW); COSEE and RIOS (Rutgers), and others. The proposed research fits with the focus of a number of multidisciplinary and international initiatives, in which PIs are active members (SCOR working group on Hydrothermal energy and the ocean carbon cycle, http://www.scorint. org/Working_Groups/wg135.htm; Deep Carbon Observatory at CIW,; Global Biogeochemical Flux (GBF) component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI),

Publications Produced as a Result of this Research

Note: When clicking on a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) number, you will be taken to an external site maintained by the publisher. Some full text articles may not yet be available without a charge during the embargo (administrative interval).

Some links on this page may take you to non-federal websites. Their policies may differ from this site.

McNichol, J., S. P. Sylva, Fr. Thomas, C. D. Taylor, S. M. Sievert, and J. S. Seewald "Assessing microbial processes in deep-sea hydrothermal systems by incubation at in situ temperature and pressure." Deep-Sea Research Part 1, v.155, 2016, p.221-232. doi:10.1016/j.dsr.2016.06.011 

Sievert, S. M., and C. Vetriani "Chemoautotrophic at deep-sea vents: Past, Present, and Future" Oceanography Magazine, v.25, 2012, p.218. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2012.21 

Sievert, SM, and C. Vetriani "Chemoautotrophy at deep-sea vents: Past, present, and future" Oceanography Magazine, v.25, 2012, p.218.

Sievert, SM, and C. Vetriani "Chemoautotrophy at deep-sea vents: Past, present, and future" Oceanography Magazine, v.25, 2012, p.218-233.

Mino, S., S. Nakagawa, H. Makita, T. Toki, J. Miyazaki, S. M. Sievert, M. Polz, F. Inagaki, A. Godfroy, S. Kato, H. Watanabe, T. Nunoura, K. Nakamura, H. Imachi, T. Watsuji, S. Kojima, K. Takai, T. Sawabe "Endemicity of the cosmopolitan mesophilic chemolithoautotroph Sulfurimonas at deep-sea hydrothermal vents" ISME Journal, v., 2017, p.. doi:10.1038/ismej.2016.178 

Zhang Y., and S. M. Sievert "Pan-genome analyses identify lineage- and niche-specific markers of evolution and adaptation in Epsilonproteobacteria" Frontiers in Microbiology - Evolutionary and Genomic Microbiology, v.5, 2014, p.110. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2014.00110 

Gulmann, L. K., S. E. Beaulieu, T. M. Shank, K. Ding, W. E. Seyfried, and S. M. Sievert "Bacterial diversity and successional patterns during biofilm formation on freshly exposed basalt surfaces at diffuse-flow deep-sea vents" Frontiers in Microbiology ? Extreme Microbiology, v., 2015, p.. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2015.00901 

Rinke C., P. Schwientek, A. Sczyrba, N. N. Ivanova1, I. J. Anderson, J.-F. Cheng, A. Darling, S. Malfatti, B. K. Swan, E. A. Gies, J. A. Dodsworth, B. P. Hedlund, G. Tsiamis, S. M. Sievert, W.-T. Liu, J. A. Eisen, S. J. Hallam, N. C. Kyrpides, R. Stepanau "Insights into the phylogeny and coding potential of microbial dark matter" Nature, v.499, 2013, p.431. doi:10.1038/nature12352 

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents, first discovered in 1977, are exemplary ecosystems where microbial chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis is the primary source of organic carbon. Chemosynthetic microorganisms use the energy generated by oxidizing reduced inorganic chemicals contained in the vent fluids, such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) or hydrogen (H2), to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into cell material. By doing so, they effectively transfer the energy from a geothermal source to higher trophic levels, in the process supporting the unique and fascinating ecosystems that are characterized by high productivity - oases in an otherwise barren landscape. While this general view of the functioning of these ecosystems is well established, there are still major gaps in our understanding of the microbiology and biogeochemistry of these systems.

The integration of microbiological and molecular biological approaches, analytical chemistry, thermodynamics, and isotopic analysis at a single deep-sea vent site (Crab Spa at 9ºN on the East Pacific Rise) is unique, and has provided novel insights into the functioning of deep-sea vent ecosystems, and the constraints regulating the interactions between the microbes and their abiotic and biotic environment. Up to this point, process-oriented studies investigating activities of vent microbes and the rates of the reactions they catalyze were largely missing. To this end, we performed shipboard incubation experiments under simulated seafloor conditions to generate data that are necessary to assess the larger role of these ecosystems in global biogeochemical cycles. Isobaric gas-tight fluids samplers were developed as a tool to conduct incubation experiments at sea under in situ pressures, representing a new capability for the field of experimental microbiology. The growth of microbes under conditions that closely mimic natural environments allows quantitative investigation of factors that regulate metabolic strategies within the oceanic crust. Using this experimental set up we were able, for the first time, to derive empirical data allowing us to determine not only the amount of primary production at a deep-sea vent site, but also to constrain the extent and turnover of the subseafloor biosphere. The microbial communities are further characterized by functional redundancy, meaning that different taxa appear to perform similar functions using homologous pathways, but being optimally adapted to the thermal and redox gradients existing in the subseafloor. The incubations performed under simulated in situ conditions point to differences in oxygen sensitivity among some of the identified Epsilonproteobacteria as one possible factor contributing to niche formation. Furthermore, we have monitored Crab Spa from early 2007, one year after a volcanic eruption, up to late 2014. Surprisingly, the chemistry and the microbial community composition have remained remarkably stable over this time, in contrast to the succession of faunal communities observed above the seafloor. Overall, our quantitative and integrative approach has generated data that enable us to place these deep-sea hydrothermal vents in a quantitative framework and thus a larger global context.

Broader Impacts. This project involved the participation of undergraduate and graduate students, resulting in one PhD thesis. For the cruise, a website was set up ( to educate and inform a broad audience about our research and related activities. A big part of the success of the website was the participation of science writer David Levin. During the cruise, we had close to 93,000 visits to the website from around the world. Visitor statistics showed that visitors stayed on the site for a significant amount of time and that it was heavily used by educators. We also had Jennifer Barone, a science writer from Scholastic magazine, on board, who contributed to the website, as well as wrote small blogs and articles that were subsequently published in Science World  (for grades 6-10, circulation of half a million), Math magazine (grades 6-9) and Science Spin (grades 3-6). Barone further wrote an article for Nautilus magazine on the origin of life that was inspired by her participation in the cruise ( Project personnel also contributed K-12 and community outreach related to marine microbes and deep-sea hydrothermal vents by acting as judges of high school science projects, presenting at a marine educators conference, giving public presentations, e.g. at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster and the New Bedford Ocean Explorium, and making class room visits at local and regional schools. 


Last Modified: 01/13/2017
Modified by: Stefan M Sievert

For specific questions or comments about this information including the NSF Project Outcomes Report, contact us.