Deep Oil Exploration Techniques Used to Test for Sports Doping

Research and exploration into our deep oceans has resulted in a magnitude of benefits to society from medicinal compounds to improved navigation and mapping equipment. It is not often you hear about connections between the deep sea and sports though. TimesOnline UK reports:

British scientists prospecting the world’s deep-sea basins for oil have discovered that the same technique can be applied to catch drug cheats in sport.

The innovative steroid test developed by researchers at Imperial College, London, and the University of Nottingham uses a process known as hydropyrolysis to detect levels of drugs in urine accurately.

Hydropyrolysis is a process where a concentrated stream of hydrogen bombards a specimen around pressures of 150 atmospheres and up to 500C (932F). Not for the faint of heart! Deep sea oil explorers use this process to clean out the organic matter from a petroleum shale. How is this being used in sports?


Doping is a major problem in athletics and has received a lot of attention in the press and by the funding agencies. Athletes may attempt to boost their performance by taking steroids, which are derived synthetically. Current testing protocols are not as accurate as the sports agencies would like. When an athlete is accused of doping, he o she may state that the steroid was derived from a natural dietary source, such as those used in fish or cow’s milk.

Hydropyrolysis essentially reduces the steroid molecule to its carbon backbone. There are 2 stable forms of carbon, the more common 12C and much less abundant 13C. By analyzing the ratios of these 2 forms of carbon in a sample, you can narrow down where the sample came from. Just as Professor Mark Sephton at Imperial College, London, states, “You are what you eat plus a little bit of what you might inject.” Meaning that synthetically-derived steroids will have a different carbon stable isotope “signature” than natural sources. This puts the nail in the coffin for athletes attempting to get an edge over their opponents by injecting steroids.

Just another case of deep sea science bettering society

Peter Etnoyer (397 Posts)

PhD candidate at Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi and doctoral fellow Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.


One Reply to “Deep Oil Exploration Techniques Used to Test for Sports Doping”

  1. One can be quite accurate when measuring the isotopes of derivatized steroids. And this way you can get carbon and deuterium numbers.

    Typically hydropyrolysis produces an array of rearranged compounds from one starting material. It also has the potential to break bonds so larger compounds (like cholesterol) would produce some of the same products as synthetic testosterone or androgen. In other words you’d have to isolate the steroid of interest before hydropyrolysis.

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