Home  /  Diversity  /  Vol: 11 Núm: 1 Par: January (2019)  /  Article

A Guide to Using Compound-Specific Stable Isotope Analysis to Study the Fates of Molecules in Organisms and Ecosystems


The measurement of stable isotopes in ‘bulk’ animal and plant tissues (e.g., muscle or leaf) has become an important tool for studies of functional diversity from organismal to continental scales. In consumers, isotope values reflect their diet, trophic position, physiological state, and geographic location. However, interpretation of bulk tissue isotope values can be confounded by variation in primary producer baseline values and by overlapping values among potential food items. To resolve these issues, biologists increasingly use compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA), in which the isotope values of monomers that constitute a macromolecule (e.g., amino acids in protein) are measured. In this review, we provide the theoretical underpinnings for CSIA, summarize its methodology and recent applications, and identify future research directions. The key principle is that some monomers are reliably routed directly from the diet into animal tissue, whereas others are biochemically transformed during assimilation. As a result, CSIA of consumer tissue simultaneously provides information about an animal’s nutrient sources (e.g., food items or contributions from gut microbes) and its physiology (e.g., nitrogen excretion mode). In combination, these data clarify many of the confounding issues in bulk analysis and enable novel precision for tracing nutrient and energy flow within and among organisms and ecosystems.

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