History of Life from the Hydrocarbon Fossil Record

  • Clifford C. WaltersEmail author
  • Kenneth E. Peters
  • J. Michael Moldowan
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology book series (HHLM)


Certain lipids and biopolymers retain their original carbon backbone structure through sedimentary diagenesis and catagenesis and can be assigned to a specific biological origin. These “taxon-specific biomarkers” (TSBs) can serve as chemical fossils that trace the evolution of life. TSBs in Precambrian rocks reveal the early evolution of archaea, cyanobacteria, and eukarya and the development of atmospheric free oxygen. However, improved criteria for assessing syngeneticity have questioned their proposed earliest occurrence in Archean rocks. Steroidal TSBs document the changing assemblages of marine phytoplankton from Neoproterozoic organic-walled acritarchs to present-day predominance of diatoms. Terpanoid TSBs reveal the evolution of higher land plants. TSBs used in conjunction with isotopic analysis can identify the taxa of enigmatic fossils, provide important clues to the causes of mass extinctions, and describe the global changes in biotic diversity and Earth’s conditions as the biosphere recovers from them. Biomarkers record the evolutionary history of life on Earth and, perhaps, other planets.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Clifford C. Walters
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kenneth E. Peters
    • 2
  • J. Michael Moldowan
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Corporate Strategic ResearchExxonMobil Research & Engineering Co.AnnandaleUSA
  2. 2.SchlumbergerMill ValleyUSA
  3. 3.Biomarker TechnologyRohnert ParkUSA
  4. 4.Department of Geological SciencesStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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