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Biases from natural sulphurization in palaeoenvironmental reconstruction based on hydrocarbon biomarker distributions

Abstract

BIOMARKERS (chemical fossils) are sedimentary organic compounds whose basic skeletons suggest an unambiguous link with known contemporary natural products, and were synthesized by biota present at the time of the deposition of the sediment. These compounds are commonly used to assess palaeoenvironmental conditions of deposition of Recent and ancient sediments1–3. Saturated hydrocarbons are relatively easy to analyse and contain a lot of geochemical information, and are therefore the most widely used class of biomarkers in palaeoenvironmental reconstruction2–5. Hydrocarbon biomarkers are biosynthesized as such or are derived from functionalized biosynthetic lipids, such as alkenes, alcohols and acids, by diagenetically induced defunctionalization. Functionalized lipids may, however, also undergo an abiogenic reaction with hydrogen sulphide or polysulphides ('natural sulphurization') during the early stages of diagenesis, and this may lead to selective removal of specific hydrocarbon biomarker precursors. Here we investigate the influence of natural sulphurization on hydrocarbon biomarker signatures in immature sediments from Italy and off Peru. We show that, if not taken properly into account, this process may lead to a severe bias in the interpretation of the geological record.

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