Plant Sciences’ Stable Isotope Facility Marks 20 Years of Service

From improving crop production to tracking mosquitoes, the Stable Isotope Facility in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences supports a wide range of research on campus and throughout the world. December 1, 2017 marks the facility’s 20th anniversary and they are holding an open house today to celebrate.

Julian Herszage (left) and Lyndi Low carrying out analysis at the Stable Isotope Facility in the Department of Plant Sciences. The lab carries out analysis of isotopes of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur for biological and environmental studies. Photo by Chris Yarnes/UC Davis.

The Stable Isotope Facility was founded in 1997 by David Harris in the Department of Vegetable Crops (since merged into Plant Sciences). The facility supports over 175,000 analyses a year from academic, government and private researchers and has a full-time staff of 13.

The lab analyzes stable isotopes of light elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur) in soils and sediments, gases and liquids, plant or animal tissues. Isotopes of an element vary in their number of neutrons resulting in small differences in atomic weight. Physical and chemical processes, such as precipitation events or enzyme activity, lead to natural variations in the distribution of these isotopes. These variations make isotopes useful tools for scientists seeking to understand chemical reactions, biological pathways, or ecosystems.

Plant physiology, mosquitoes, ocean food webs, and gas leaks

Arnold Bloom, Professor of Plant Sciences, said that stable isotope methods have become essential for research in the plant sciences.

“Not only do stable isotopes allow us to trace elements through biological and geophysical processes, but they also provide integrative assessments of crop water-use efficiency, evidence for the geographical source of plant material, and identification of the soil microorganisms associated with plant roots,” Bloom said.

Entomologist Chris Barker at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine uses the facility to track invasive mosquitoes in California. Mosquito larvae develop in water and the water they take up as they grow gives them an isotope label unique to their pond or puddle.  Through isotope measurements of trapped adult mosquitoes performed at the SIF, Barker can determine where a mosquito grew up and how far it flew from its birthplace.

“Compared to conventional methods that involve dusting the adult mosquitoes with powders, stable isotopes provide a more direct way of studying mosquito dispersal from their natural habitats,” Barker said.

Life in the ocean is composed of a complex web of organisms, from the smallest plankton up to top predators, such as dolphins. Using SIF to analyze nitrogen isotopes from amino acids, researchers from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and Scripps Institute of Oceanography were able to show that the food web that supports California dolphins is shrinking as the climate changes.

The facility has also helped PG&E validate new mobile technology for detecting gas leaks.

How has the SIF been a part of your research? In commemoration of the 20th anniversary, the Facility is compiling a list of articles for their website. Please email with your citations, including the digital object identifier if applicable.

The open house runs from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Dec. 1, in room 3001, Plant and Environmental Sciences building.

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