A minimalistic microbial food web in an excavated deep subsurface clay rock
Clay rocks are being considered for radioactive waste disposal, but relatively little is known about the impact of microbes on the long-term safety of geological repositories. Thus, a more complete understanding of microbial community structure and function in these environments would provide further detail for the evaluation of the safety of geological disposal of radioactive waste in clay rocks. It would also provide a unique glimpse into a poorly studied deep subsurface microbial ecosystem. Previous studies concluded that microorganisms were present in pristine Opalinus Clay, but inactive. In this work, we describe the microbial community and assess the metabolic activities taking place within borehole water. Metagenomic sequencing and genome-binning of a porewater sample containing suspended clay particles revealed a remarkably simple heterotrophic microbial community, fueled by sedimentary organic carbon, mainly composed of two organisms: a Pseudomonas sp. fermenting bacterium growing on organic macromolecules and releasing organic acids and H-2, and a sulfate-reducing Peptococcaceae able to oxidize organic molecules to CO2. In Opalinus Clay, this microbial system likely thrives where pore space allows it. In a repository, this may occur where the clay rock has been locally damaged by excavation or in engineered backfills.