Patterns of intramolecular carbon isotopic heterogeneity within amino acids of autotrophs and heterotrophs

William B. Savidge*, Neal E. Blair

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


A survey of the intramolecular C isotopic composition of a variety of organisms was conducted to investigate the potential of intramolecular isotopic measurements as a tracer of biological or geochemical processes. Based on a consideration of inorganic C sources and enzymatic fractionations, contrasting predictions were made for the relative 13C enrichments of the α-carboxyl carbons fixed by the anapleurotic (β)-carboxylation pathway during amino acid synthesis by photoautotrophs and heterotrophs. To test the model predictions, the stable C isotopic compositions of the acid hydrolyzable C fraction, the total amino acid α-carboxyl C fraction and the α-carboxyl C of glutamate from a variety of autotrophic and heterotrophic organisms were compared. The relative 13C enrichments of carboxyl carbons in the bulk amino acid fraction and in glutamate conformed qualitatively to model predictions. Macroalgal taxa possessed a significantly less enriched carboxyl C fraction than did either C3 or C4 vascular plants, indicating the presence of a different β-carboxylation pathway operating in these organisms. In most multicellular heterotrophs, the isotopic composition of the amino acid carboxyl carbons closely resembled that of their food sources. Amino acids are apparently assimilated into tissue proteins directly from their diets without significant metabolic modification. However, shifts in the isotopic composition of the carboxyl C fractions in some organisms were detected that were consistent with the occurrence of significant resynthesis of amino acids from non-amino acid precursors. Comparison of plant leaves and roots provided evidence of environmentally controlled assimilate partitioning. Intramolecular isotopic measurements of biological molecules provide unique insights into the origins and transformations of bio-molecules.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)178-189
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2004


  • Anapleurotic carboxylation
  • Carbon isotopes
  • Glutamate
  • Phosphoenolpyruvate carboxylase
  • Tricarboxylic acid cycle

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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