Methanogenesis as a potential source of chemical energy for primary biomass production by autotrophic organisms in hydrothermal systems on Europa
Geochemical models are used to explore the possibility that lithoautotrophic methanogenesis (the conversion of CO2 plus H2 to methane) could be a source of metabolically useful chemical energy for the production of biomass at putative European hydrothermal systems. Two cases are explored: a relatively reduced methane-rich ocean and a relatively oxidized sulfate-and bicarbonate-rich ocean. In the case of a methane-rich ocean, a source of CO2 for methanogenesis is provided by conversion of dissolved methane to CO2 during reaction of ocean water with igneous rocks at high temperatures in the subsurface. Fluid-rock reactions also provide a source of dissolved H2 in the hydrothermal fluid. When this fluid circulates back to the ocean floor and mixes with seawater, conversion of the dissolved CO2 and H2 to methane provides a potential source of chemical energy that can be used to drive metabolic processes. For the case of a sulfate- and carbonate-rich ocean, reaction with reduced igneous rocks at high temperatures will also produce hydrothermal fluids with high H2 concentrations (as occurs in hydrothermal systems on Earth). Mixing of the resulting hydrothermal fluid with seawater in a relatively oxidized ocean could supply energy from either methanogenesis or sulfate reduction. For plausible compositions of a European ocean, methanogenesis can supply similar amounts of energy to that which supports the prolific ecosystems surrounding submarine hydrothermal vents on Earth. Even in the most optimistic case, however, the total amount of biomass that could be supported globally by lithoautotrophic microbes on Europa is extremely small compared to the biomass produced photosynthetically on Earth. Nevertheless, sufficient metabolic energy could apparently be available at hydrothermal systems on Europa to support an origin of life and localized ecosystems.