Chemical Fossils: The Geological Fate of Steroids

Science  06 Aug 1982:
Vol. 217, Issue 4559, pp. 491-504
DOI: 10.1126/science.217.4559.491


Steroids are used to illustrate some of the significant advances that have been made in recent years in understanding the biological origin and geological fate of the organic compounds in sediments. The precursor sterols are transformed, initially by microbial activity and later by physicochemical constraints, into thermodynamically more stable saturated and aromatic hydrocarbons in mature sediments and petroleums. The steps in this transformation result in a complex web linking biogenesis, diagenesis, and catagenesis. Indeed, the complexity and variety of biological lipids such as the steroids are evidently matched in the corresponding geolipids. The extent of preservation of the biochemical imprint in the structures and stereochemistry of these geolipids, even over hundreds of millions of years, is startling, as is the systematic and sequential nature of the geochemical changes they evidently undergo. This new understanding of molecular organic geochemistry has applications in petroleum geochemistry, where biological marker compounds are valuable in the assessment of sediment maturity and in correlation work.