Compound-specific isotopic analyses: A novel tool for reconstruction of ancient biogeochemical processes

J. M. Hayes, Katherine H. Freeman, Brian N. Popp, Christopher H. Hoham

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Patterns of isotopic fractionation in biogeochemical processes are reviewed and it is suggested that isotopic fractionations will be small when substrates are large. If so, isotopic compositions of biomarkers will reflect those of their biosynthetic precursors. This prediction is tested by consideration of results of analyses of geoporphyrins and geolipids from the Greenhorn Formation (Cretaceous, Western Interior Seaway of North America) and the Messel Shale (Eocene, lacustrine, southern Germany). It is shown (i) that isotopic compositions of porphyrins that are related to a common source, but which have been altered structurally, cluster tightly and (ii) that isotopic differences between geolipids and porphyrins related to a common source are equal to those observed in modern biosynthetic products. Both of these observations are consistent with preservation of biologically controlled isotopic compositions during diagenesis. Isotopic compositions of individual compounds can thus be interpreted in terms of biogeochemical processes in ancient depositional environments. In the Cretaceous samples, isotopic compositions of n-alkanes are covariant with those of total organic carbon, while δ values for pristane and phytane are covariant with those of poryphyrins. In this unit representing an open marine environment, the preserved acyclic polyisoprenoids apparently derive mainly from primary material, while the extractable n-alkanes derive mainly from lower levels of the food chain. In the Messel Shale, isotopic compositions of individual biomarkers range from -20.9 to -73.4% vs PDB. Isotopic compositions of specific compounds can be interpreted in terms of origin from methylotrophic, chemoautotrophic, and chemolithotrophic microorganisms as well as from primary producers that lived in the water column and sediments of this ancient lake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1115-1128
Number of pages14
JournalOrganic Geochemistry
Issue number4-6
StatePublished - 1990

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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