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Light or heavy? The nuclear choice

On the heels of #SciAmChem day I thought I’d pull a post from the Life, Unbounded archives that could use a little airing and has a chemical slant. It’s all about the isotopic favoritism that organisms, or at least some of them, display. I’ve not heard more about the particular, and surprising, heavy isotope preference discussed here, so if anyone has more information please feel free to post comments!


One of the signposts of life – and something that will likely be exploited in the study of potential Martian critters – is isotopic fractionation. The general wisdom is that life prefers light isotopes. Given the choice between hydrogen and deuterium (always present due to its construction 13.7 billion years ago during primordial nucleosynthesis) living things will tend to choose the lighter hydrogen. The same is true for carbon-12 and carbon-13, the light guy wins and is preferentially incorporated into the chemical doings of cells. When the extraordinary plumes of atmospheric methane were confirmed on Mars a couple years ago it was clear that the next step would be to try to pin down the isotopic composition of the gas. Here on Earth one can quite readily distinguish methane produced by bacteria or archaea and that produced by abiotic processes (most is biological), by tasting the isotopic composition.

So why is this so, why does life like particular isotopes? Ask a biologist and they will typically say that it’s all about enzymes. Processes inside cells that work with enzymes – fabulous catalysts – happen faster with light isotopes, and bingo, you naturally sieve out the heavy guys and leave them in the dust. At least that’s the line I’ve heard again and again. I was fascinated then when I stumbled across a very interesting work by Calsciotti. In this and subsequent papers the discovery of cellular processes involving nitrogen are described that actually prefer the heavy isotope nitrogen-15 rather than the lighter nitrogen-14. It appears that in some cases the heavier atoms provide a more energetically lucrative reaction route, et voila, like the fickle thing it is, life spits out the lighter variants in favor of something meatier.

The light isotope rule is not even that. Biochemistry again demonstrates that after a few billion years of fine-tuning it can exploit just about any trick in the book to get ahead. What I find amazing is that only about 0.4% of nitrogen on the Earth is the weightier 15, yet here we have organisms that will make use of the better chemical throughput of that isotope. One’s first reaction is ‘why bother?’. Obviously it may just be an unintended consequence of the chemical network, but I think the odds are good that somewhere along the line that tiny advantage will have been important. Here’s the big question though, would a different biosphere – a martian one perhaps – with a presumably different evolutionary history, make all the same biochemical choices? To throw a final spin on this; Mars has a higher nitrogen-15 abundance than the Earth, a relative enrichment of about 60%. How much would this environment have swayed things?

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 5:48 pm 08/3/2011

    Hydrogen-1 has spin-1/2, H-2 has spin-1. Carbon-12 has spin-0, C-13 has spin-1/2. Nitrogen-14 has spin-1, N-15 has spin-1/2. The observation occurs if isotopic nuclei with increasing nuclear spins are increasingly disfavored by biochemistry. Strong tests are then oxygen-16,17,18 with spins-0,5/2,0; magnesium-24,25,26 with spins-0,5/2,0; and sulfur-32,33,34 with spins-0,3/2,0. Perhaps chemical discrimination occurs through the multiplicity, 2N+1, of free radical-nuclear spin interactions.

    Theory is preferred to experiment because virtual mud packs tighter than real gems. Management is rewarded for enforcing process not creating product.

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  2. 2. Caleb A. Scharf in reply to Caleb A. Scharf 10:46 am 08/4/2011

    That’s very interesting, although outside my expertise. I’ve seen people talking about free-radicals and nuclear spin, but never really understood the details.

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