Biological activity in the deep subsurface and the origin of heavy oil

Nature. 2003 Nov 20;426(6964):344-52. doi: 10.1038/nature02134.


At temperatures up to about 80 degrees C, petroleum in subsurface reservoirs is often biologically degraded, over geological timescales, by microorganisms that destroy hydrocarbons and other components to produce altered, denser 'heavy oils'. This temperature threshold for hydrocarbon biodegradation might represent the maximum temperature boundary for life in the deep nutrient-depleted Earth. Most of the world's oil was biodegraded under anaerobic conditions, with methane, a valuable commodity, often being a major by-product, which suggests alternative approaches to recovering the world's vast heavy oil resource that otherwise will remain largely unproduced.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaerobiosis
  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • Methane / metabolism
  • Oxidants / metabolism
  • Petroleum / metabolism*


  • Oxidants
  • Petroleum
  • Methane