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PLoS One. 2013 Sep 17;8(9):e73441. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073441. eCollection 2013.

Tracing carbon sources through aquatic and terrestrial food webs using amino acid stable isotope fingerprinting.

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Leibniz-Laboratory for Radiometric Dating and Stable Isotope Research, Christian-Albrechts Universität zu Kiel, Kiel, Germany ; Biogeodynamics and Biodiversity Group, Centre for Advanced Studies of Blanes, Spanish Research Council (CEAB-CSIC), Blanes, Catalonia, Spain.

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2014;9(1). doi:10.1371/annotation/2f7a422e-13a9-4491-ae81-4fd215149654.


Tracing the origin of nutrients is a fundamental goal of food web research but methodological issues associated with current research techniques such as using stable isotope ratios of bulk tissue can lead to confounding results. We investigated whether naturally occurring δ(13)C patterns among amino acids (δ(13)CAA) could distinguish between multiple aquatic and terrestrial primary production sources. We found that δ(13)CAA patterns in contrast to bulk δ(13)C values distinguished between carbon derived from algae, seagrass, terrestrial plants, bacteria and fungi. Furthermore, we showed for two aquatic producers that their δ(13)CAA patterns were largely unaffected by different environmental conditions despite substantial shifts in bulk δ(13)C values. The potential of assessing the major carbon sources at the base of the food web was demonstrated for freshwater, pelagic, and estuarine consumers; consumer δ(13)C patterns of essential amino acids largely matched those of the dominant primary producers in each system. Since amino acids make up about half of organismal carbon, source diagnostic isotope fingerprints can be used as a new complementary approach to overcome some of the limitations of variable source bulk isotope values commonly encountered in estuarine areas and other complex environments with mixed aquatic and terrestrial inputs.

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