Marine sediments represent a massive microbial ecosystem, but we still do not fully understand what factors shape and limit life underneath the seafloor. Analyzing samples from a subduction zone off the coast of Japan, Heuer et al. found that microbial life, in particular bacterial vegetative cells, decreases as depth and temperature increases down to ∼600 meters below the seafloor, corresponding to temperatures of ∼70°C. Below this limit, endospores are common—a remnant, and a potential reservoir, of bacterial life. Deeper still is a sterile zone, and below 1000 meters is a scalding realm populated by vegetative cells. At such great depths, high concentrations of acetate and sulfate coexist, and there are also signs of hyperthermophilic methanogenesis. These data provide a fascinating window into an extreme and inhospitable environment that nonetheless supports microbial life.
Science, this issue p. 1230