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Biodegradation of oil in uplifted basins prevented by deep-burial sterilization

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 01 November 2001


Biodegradation of crude oil by bacterial activity—which has occurred in the majority of the Earth's oil reserves1—is known to reduce greatly the quality of petroleum in reservoirs2. For economically successful prospecting for oil, it is therefore important to understand the processes and conditions in geological formations that lead to oil biodegradation. Although recent studies speculate that bacterial activity can potentially occur up to temperatures as high as 150 °C (refs 3, 4), it is generally accepted that effective petroleum biodegradation over geological timescales generally occurs in reservoirs with temperatures below 80 °C (ref. 2). This appears, however, to be at odds with the observation that non-degraded oils can still be found in reservoirs below this temperature. Here we compile data regarding the extent of oil biodegradation in several oil reservoirs, and find that the extensive occurrence of non-biodegraded oil in shallow, cool basins is restricted to those that have been uplifted from deeper, hotter regions of the Earth. We suggest that these petroleum reservoirs were sterilized by heating to a temperature around 80–90 °C during deep burial, inactivating hydrocarbon-degrading organisms that occur in the deep biosphere. Even when such reservoirs are subsequently uplifted to much cooler regions and filled with oil, degradation does not occur, implying that the sterilized sediments are not recolonized by hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.

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Figure 1: Comparison of continuously subsiding and uplifted sedimentary basins.
Figure 2: Degree of oil biodegradation, assessed by the pristane/n-heptadecane ratio, as a function of current reservoir depth for oils from four different settings.


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We thank Norsk Hydro for support of the Phoenix project, and M. Jones, A. Aplin, N. Telnaes and M. Koopmans for discussions.

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Wilhelms, A., Larter, S., Head, I. et al. Biodegradation of oil in uplifted basins prevented by deep-burial sterilization. Nature 411, 1034–1037 (2001).

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