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Methanotrophic bacterial symbionts fuel dense populations of deep-sea feather duster worms (Sabellida, Annelida) and extend the spatial influence of methane seepage.

Abstract

Deep-sea cold seeps are dynamic sources of methane release and unique habitats supporting ocean biodiversity and productivity. Here, we describe newly discovered animal-bacterial symbioses fueled by methane, between two species of annelid (a serpulid Laminatubus and sabellid Bispira) and distinct aerobic methane-oxidizing bacteria belonging to the Methylococcales, localized to the host respiratory crown. Worm tissue δ13C of -44 to -58‰ are consistent with methane-fueled nutrition for both species, and shipboard stable isotope labeling experiments revealed active assimilation of 13C-labeled methane into animal biomass, which occurs via the engulfment of methanotrophic bacteria across the crown epidermal surface. These worms represent a new addition to the few animals known to intimately associate with methane-oxidizing bacteria and may further explain their enigmatic mass occurrence at 150-million year-old fossil seeps. High-resolution seafloor surveys document significant coverage by these symbioses, beyond typical obligate seep fauna. These findings uncover novel consumers of methane in the deep sea and, by expanding the known spatial extent of methane seeps, may have important implications for deep-sea conservation.

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