Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


First Advisor

James F. Holden

Second Advisor

Klaus R. Nüsslein

Third Advisor

Susan B. Leschine

Subject Categories



This dissertation research aims to show that there are deterministic microbial distribution patterns based on quantifiable environmental thresholds by determining and rationalizing the relative abundances of hyperthermophilic methanogens, autotrophic iron(III) oxide reducers, and heterotrophic sulfur reducers within deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Organisms of these metabolisms are predicted to be relatively more abundant in different regions depending on environmental conditions such as reduction potential, organic carbon, and hydrogen availability. The relative abundances of these metabolic groups within samples from the Endeavour Segment and Axial Volcano in the northeastern Pacific Ocean were determined. Iron(III) oxide reducers were detected in nearly all samples while methanogens were generally not present or present in concentrations lower than those of the iron(III) reducers. To determine growth constraints and the effect of hydrogen concentration on hyperthermophilic methanogen growth kinetics, Methanocaldococcus jannaschii and two new Methanocaldococcus field isolates were grown at varying hydrogen concentrations. The hydrogen-dependent growth kinetics for all three strains were statistically indistinguishable, exhibiting longer doubling times and lower maximum cell concentrations with decreasing hydrogen concentrations until growth ceased below 17-23 μM. This minimum hydrogen concentration for hyperthermophilic methanogenesis was correlated with field microbiology and fluid geochemistry data from the Endeavour Segment and Axial Volcano. Anomalously high methane concentrations and thermophilic methanogens were only observed in fluid samples where hydrogen concentrations were above this predicted threshold. Aside from anomalous sites, methanogens are predicted to be hydrogen limited, and may rely on hydrogen produced by heterotrophs as suggested by in situ sampling and co-culture experiments. Models and kinetic experiments suggest that iron(III) oxide reducers are not hydrogen limited under the same conditions. A Methanocaldococcus strain that we isolated from Axial Volcano and used in our hydrogen threshold experiments was bioenergetically modeled over its range of growth temperatures, pH, NaCl concentrations, and NH4Cl concentrations. Its methane production rates and growth energies were largely constant but increased at superoptimal temperatures and when nitrogen was limiting. The results of this research demonstrate that the rates of and constraints on metabolic processes can be used to predict the distribution and biogeochemical impact of hyperthermophiles in deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems.

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