In every given element, the number of neutrons may be different from each other while the protons are the same. Isotopes are the different versions of a similar element. Isotopes are atoms that have the same number of protons but contain a different number of neutrons. Atomic number is always equal to the number of protons, and the sum of protons and neutrons gives the atomic mass. It follows therefore that isotopes are elements having an equal atomic number but different mass numbers. Stable isotopes are the non-reactive forms of atoms even though they emit no radiation (Hobson & Wassenaar, 2018). They have unique properties which enable them to be applied broadly especially in water management, environmental studies, and forensics among others. The primary objectives of the paper are to evaluate the importance of stable isotopes in measuring amount and proportions in samples, for example, the stable isotopes in water can be used to trace the origin, carbon and nitrogen cycles, history and sources. Also, the paper aims to dissect how stable isotopes can be used as tracers where they are added to a system to be investigated, such as agriculture. In such purposes, the stable isotopes are alienated using sophisticated methods such as mass spectrometry.
Isotopes have ratios which are measured using analytical instruments called isotope-ratio-mass-spectrometers (IRMS). Ratios on carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes are often used widely in providing answers to questions revolving around diet, for example, weaning age and consumption of animal products (Hobson & Wassenaar, 2018). Additionally, oxygen and strontium isotope ratios are used in the reconstruction of ancient migration.
Around the 1980s, it was discovered by scholars that different ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes contained in the human bone could give information on the kind of diet persons consume. Carbon stable isotopes can be used to distinguish between some types of plants, for example, C3-plants which form the majority of land plants and C4-plants which include maize. In Europe, which predominantly has fewer C4 plants in antiquity, the carbon isotopes are majorly used to differentiate terrestrial from aquatic food. Nitrogen isotopes, which increase the position of an individual in a food chain, can be combined with carbon isotopes to provide an indication of the quantity of animal product in the diet (Hobson & Wassenaar, 2018). However, it is critical to note that, the method cannot satisfactorily distinguish between dairy and meat. Instructively, the studies on past eating habits revealed that Neolithic people consumed no fish. Conversely, the medieval bishops consumed more fish which is associated with fasting.
This is a term used to explain the gradual transition from breast milk which is a child's diet to more solid food. The study of weaning age is premised on the fact that stable isotopes ratios of oxygen and nitrogen vary based on a point on the food chain of an individual. A child's place in the food chain is higher as it consumes its mother's tissues during breastfeeding and effectively this increases the nitrogen isotope ratios in its issues. At developmental stages where weaning starts and the mother's milk gradually replaces the solid foods, nitrogen isotope ratio d15N significantly decreases and settles at the level of the mother and other adults. Also, the oxygen isotopes are also taken from the water in the environment by the body. Ordinarily, when a child breastfeeds, a high level of 18O is consumed, and this drops gradually as water begins to be consumed other sources which have lighter isotopes (Hobson & Wassenaar, 2018). By tracking the levels of oxygen and oxygen isotopes in teeth, the age at which the child is weaned off the mother's breast milk and to other solid foods is determined.
The use of stable isotopes tracers has dramatically increased in the last decade especially in determining the level of fatty acid metabolism in human. Notably, advances in analytical instrumentation and safety considerations are some of the reasons for the increased use of stable isotope tracers. There are several experimental design choices for the use of either deuterium or carbon-13 as tracers for lip studies and fatty acids. The options include feeding a pulse dose of the labeled fat or more labeled fats (Hobson & Wassenaar, 2018). In increasing enrichment, the multiple doses of the labeled fat are fed at time intervals. The alternative is always the administration by continuous intravenous infusion or injection. The other option is to use diets which contain foods from plants which have higher carbon-13 enrichment count. It is worth to note that, each of the basic experimental designs has distinct strengths and the choice on the best experimental design to use often depends on the objectives of the study.
To address the variety of questions related to unsaturated fatty acid metabolism in human, the study of stable isotopes is used widely. Notable examples are when the stable isotopes are used in the investigation of oxidation of docosahexaenoic acid, desaturation of linolenic and linoleic acids in infants, and the 13C nuclear spectra of arachidonic acid in rat brain among others. It should be noted that both the radioisotope and stable isotope tracer studies in humans and animals are widely responsible for the understanding of fatty acid and lipid metabolism (Hobson & Wassenaar, 2018). However, there are limitations and several issues associated with isotope studies that remain unresolved. Some examples of the unresolved issues are the validity of in vivo fatty acid metabolite results, subject variability, quantification of isotope data, and kinetic modeling among others.
In conclusion, the analysis of stable isotopes has proved to be an extremely vital tool in explaining a variety of ecological problems. The stable isotopes can also be used as biological tracers where the sources and basal carbon in a food web can be positively identified. Also, the carbon stable isotopes are useful in plant physiology, and the nitrogen stable isotope ratios in animal tissues are used as indicators of trophic level. Moreover, hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in animals elucidate those of local precipitation. In light of this, when stable isotope analysis is used with care, it can provide advantages over other conservative techniques and an extra tool for the ecologist.
Hobson, K. A., & Wassenaar, L. I. (Eds.). (2018). Tracking animal migration with stable isotopes. Academic Press.
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