An ionic limit to life in the deep subsurface

Samuel J. Payler, Jennifer F. Biddle, Barbara Sherwood Lollar, Mark G. Fox-Powell, Thomas Edwards, Bryne T. Ngwenya, Sean M. Paling, Charles S. Cockell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


The physical and chemical factors that can limit or prevent microbial growth in the deep subsurface are not well defined. Brines from an evaporite sequence were sampled in the Boulby Mine, United Kingdom between 800 and 1300 m depth. Ionic, hydrogen and oxygen isotopic composition were used to identify two brine sources, an aquifer situated in strata overlying the mine, and another ambiguous source distinct from the regional groundwater. The ability of the brines to support microbial replication was tested with culturing experiments using a diversity of inocula. The examined brines were found to be permissive for growth, except one. Testing this brine’s physicochemical properties showed it to have low water activity and to be chaotropic, which we attribute to the high concentration of magnesium and chloride ions. Metagenomic sequencing of the brines that supported growth showed their microbial communities to be similar to each other and comparable to those found in other hypersaline environments. These data show that solutions high in dissolved ions can shape the microbial diversity of the continental deep subsurface biosphere. Furthermore, under certain circumstances, complex brines can establish a hard limit to microbial replication in the deep biosphere, highlighting the potential for subsurface uninhabitable aqueous environments at depths far shallower than a geothermally-defined limit to life.
Original languageEnglish
Article number00426
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2019


  • Evaporite
  • Salt
  • Habitability
  • Astrobiology
  • Subsurface


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