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High-Precision Isotopic Analysis

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Applications > Ecology

Energy | Environmental | Pharmaceutical | Forensics | Food Adulteration

Stable isotope analysis has recently found a strong foothold in ecological research. It is used not only for detecting dietary changes in organisms and tracing nutritional sources, but also for identifying the origins and migratory movements of wildlife.

Because the hydrogen (2H/1H, or δD) and oxygen (18O/16O, or δ18O) isotopic composition of surface water is dependent on latitude, altitude, and distance from the ocean, similar plants grown in various areas can sometimes be differentiated based on the isotopic composition of their tissues. Precipitation – once deposited – works its way up the food web, becoming incorporated as part of the tissues of other organisms. This process potentially imparts an isotopic signature designating the source region where the tissue was grown (e.g. bird feathers). 

Similarly, the various metabolic pathways utilized by plants (i.e. C3: most plants; C4; corn; and CAM: succulents) produce different carbon isotope (13C/12C, or δ13C) signatures within their tissues. For instance, products formed from corn are distinctly different isotopically from those formed from most other plant materials. These differences also can be traced through other organisms as they metabolize the plant tissues into their own mass. In addition, differences in nitrogen isotope signatures (15N/14N, or δ15N) can differentiate between manmade and natural materials (i.e. fertilizer), as well as provide information on an organism’s trophic level.

Suggested Readings
T. E. Dawson, S. Mambelli, A.H. Plamboeck, P.H. Templer, K.P. Tu, "Stable Isotopes in Plant Ecology," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Volume 33, 2002, Pages 507-559.

K.A. Hobson, "Tracing Origins and Migration of Wildlife Using Stable Isotopes: A Review," Oecologia, Volume 120, 1999, Pages 314-326.

J.F. Kelly, "Stable Isotopes of Carbon and Nitrogen in the Study of Avian and Mammalian Trophic Ecology," Canadian Journal of Zoology, Volume 78 (1), 2000, Pages 1-27.

K. Lajtha and R.H. Michener, editors, "Stable Isotopes in Ecological and Environmental Sciences," Oxford University Press, London, 1994.

D.R. Rubenstein, K.A. Hobson, "From Birds to Butterflies: Animal Movement Patterns and Stable Isotopes," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 19 (5), 2004, Pages 256-263.
P.W. Rundel, J.R. Ehleringer, and K.A. Nagy, editors. "Stable Isotopes in Ecological Research," Springer Verlag, New York, 1989.

M.S. Webster, P.P. Marra, S.M. Gaig, S. Bensch, R.T. Holmes in "Links Between Worlds: Unraveling Migratory Connectivity," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 17 (2), 2002, Pages 76-83.

Isotopic Fingerprinting of Solids and Liquids (PDF)
Dissolved Gas Identification (PDF)

Informaton on organic solids and liquids analysis
Informatoin on water analysis




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