Advances in the application of amino acid nitrogen isotopic analysis in ecological and biogeochemical studies

Naohiko Ohkouchi, Yoshito Chikaraishi, Hilary G. Close, Brian Fry, Thomas Larsen, Daniel J. Madigan, Matthew D. McCarthy, Kelton W. McMahon, Toshi Nagata, Yuichi I. Naito, Nanako O. Ogawa, Brian N. Popp, Shawn Steffan, Yoshinori Takano, Ichiro Tayasu, Alex S.J. Wyatt, Yasuhiko T. Yamaguchi, Yusuke Yokoyama

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

139 Scopus citations


Compound-specific isotopic analysis of amino acids (CSIA-AA) has emerged in the last decade as a powerful approach for tracing the origins and fate of nitrogen in ecological and biogeochemical studies. This approach is based on the empirical observation that source amino acids (SAAs) (i.e., phenylalanine), fractionate 15N very little (< 0.5‰) during trophic transfer, whereas trophic AAs (TAAs) (i.e., glutamic acid), are greatly (∼6–8‰) enriched in 15N during each trophic step. The differential fractionation of these two AA groups can provide a valuable estimate of consumer trophic position that is internally indexed to the baseline δ15N value of the integrated food web. In this paper, we critically review the analytical methods for determining the nitrogen isotopic composition of AAs by gas chromatography–isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. We also discuss methodological considerations for accurate trophic position assessment of organisms using CSIA-AA. We then discuss the advantages and challenges of the CSIA-AA approach using published case studies across a range of topics, including trophic position assessment in various ecosystems, reconstruction of ancient human diets, reconstruction of animal migration and environmental variability, and assessment of marine organic matter dynamics with new classification of microbial fractionation patterns. It is clear that the CSIA-AA approach can provide unique insight into the sources, cycling, and trophic modification of organic nitrogen as it flows through systems. However, this approach will be greatly improved through continued exploration into how biochemical, physiological, and ecological mechanisms affect isotopic fractionation of individual AAs. We end this review with a perspective on future work that will promote the evolution of the rapidly growing field of CSIA-AA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)150-174
Number of pages25
JournalOrganic Geochemistry
StatePublished - Nov 2017


  • Amino acid
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Ecology
  • Nitrogen isotopic composition
  • Trophic discrimination factor
  • Trophic position

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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