Paris, June 19, 2006
Proteins, nucleic acids and sugars rarely last very long after organisms have died. It is mainly hydrocarbons that are found in rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old, and these are sometimes in the concentrated form of petroleum, gas or coal. These compounds come from the conversion of biological lipids, with their carbon double bonds, into saturated compounds that are more resistant to decomposition. Up to now, knowledge about the conditions in which these changes took place was only fairly superficial. However, two main hypotheses were generally favored. One was that preservation is enhanced by the absence of oxygen, and the other was that microorganisms are responsible for the transformations.
The team of chemists from CNRS “Natural Substances / Molecular Chemistry” unit, and Louis Pasteur University Strasbourg, directed by Pierre Albrecht, has recently challenged this second hypothesis. The researchers worked with a geologist from the Federal Institute of Technology in
The researchers have now discovered that the conversion of certain organic compounds, which are typical of bacteria and algae, into compounds that can be preserved long-term takes place in the anoxic layer, in the presence of hydrogen sulfide, very soon after the organisms have died. These compounds stabilized by hydrogenation are already found in the upper layers of recently deposited sediment. The lack of selectivity of hydrogenation reactions, and the wide variety of chemical forms of degradation products are a feature of a purely chemical process and not a more precise, selective biological product. The team was able to confirm this hypothesis by laboratory studies carried out between 50 and
Therefore is would seem that, contrary to what was generally believed, the first step in the process of forming petroleum and other fossil energy sources is a purely chemical one. These hydrogenation reactions which start the preservation process of large quantities of subterranean carbon may also have played an important part in relation to so-called “Black Smokers”  where submarine springs of hot water rich in H2S are active. The chemical reactions taking place around these “Black Smokers”, similar to those which have been discovered in
 An organic compound with a sulfhydryl group (-SH) attached to a carbon atom).
 Jets of water at 300-400°C coming from cracks in the ocean ridges and containing black metallic particles in suspension. This phenomenon is caused by the magma under the ridges heating the seawater on the ocean bed.
Latest press releases