From UC Santa Cruz: “NSF funds innovative stable isotope equipment at UC Santa Cruz”

UC Santa Cruz

From UC Santa Cruz

January 02, 2019
Tom Garlinghouse

Ocean Sciences Professor Matthew McCarthy (left) with lab manager Dyke Andreason in the UC Santa Cruz Stable Isotope Laboratory. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

With the new grant, the Stable Isotope Lab will acquire a cutting-edge instrument called an isotope-ratio-monitoring mass spectrometer (IRMS).

A major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help fund the acquisition of a new state-of-the-art spectrometer for the Stable Isotope Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz.

The $805,000 project for the new instrument was primarily supported by a $564,184 NSF grant, one of three awards the campus received this year from NSF’s highly competitive Major Research Instrumentation program. In addition, the Office of Research, the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, the Division of Social Sciences, three departments and a research institute all contributed a total of $241,000 to fully fund the instrument expansion.

Principal investigator Matthew McCarthy, a professor of ocean sciences, said the new equipment will support research across a wide range of disciplines, ranging from oceanography and earth science, paleontology, anthropology, ecology and fundamental biochemical cycle research.

“We want our facility to be a place that diverse scientists from UC Santa Cruz and across our region can use,” McCarthy said. “My vision for this is to be a national and international center for novel and leading-edge stable isotope approaches.”

Powerful tool

Stable isotope analysis is a powerful tool for tracing carbon and nutrients as they cycle through food webs and the environment. UCSC’s Stable Isotope Laboratory, established in 1994, has been one of the world’s top facilities for research on climatic and oceanographic conditions in Earth’s past (paleoclimatology and paleoceanography). Scientists using the lab are at the forefront of research on, for example, ancient greenhouse climates, El Niño Southern Oscillation events, controls on rainfall in California, the vulnerability of species to global change, and other topics. According to McCarthy, research associated with the laboratory has generated over 165 scientific papers since 2004.

Isotopes are different forms of the same element. The most common naturally occurring isotope of carbon, for example, is carbon–12 (the 12 refers to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom). Other carbon isotopes include carbon–14, which is unstable and emits radiation as it decays over time, and carbon–13, which is a stable isotope. While carbon–14 is useful for carbon dating, stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements are useful in a wide range of scientific analyses.

Stable isotopes have proven especially valuable in the analysis of diet, where they can be used to distinguish between different sources of food. Isotopes in the food animals or humans eat are stored in their bones, teeth, and other tissues. By measuring the ratios of certain isotopes in tissue samples, researchers can determine, for example, where an animal fed and whether it ate primarily a marine, terrestrial, or freshwater diet. This ability has made stable isotopes an increasingly invaluable tool for not only ecology, but also paleontology, anthropology, and even forensics.

With the new grant, the Stable Isotope Lab will acquire a cutting-edge instrument called an isotope-ratio-monitoring mass spectrometer (IRMS). McCarthy explained that the IRMS is a powerful tool for performing compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA).

CSIA is a way of measuring isotopes in individual molecules rather than bulk samples, which is the traditional method of stable isotope analysis. This application has proven especially useful for measuring isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen in amino acids. This type of analysis is a relatively new but very promising field of study that “has exploded in the last 15 years,” McCarthy said.

Innovative research

The new spectrometer will also substantially modernize the existing isotope lab, which was last updated in 2004 and contains still usable but rapidly aging instruments that are now limited in their capabilities. With this new equipment, UC Santa Cruz will continue to be in the forefront of innovative research in the years to come, McCarthy said.

“My vision for this project was really to not just expand things, but to make us a premier, cutting-edge place in the world to do compound-specific isotope analysis across different disciplines,” he said.

CSIA can be used in a broad range of scientific disciplines, including oceanography, biology, ecology, astrobiology, paleontology, Earth science, and environmental studies. One expanding area at UCSC in which CSIA has proven of particular value is in anthropology and archaeology. Traditionally, bulk sample measurement of ratios between carbon–13 and nitrogen–15 in human bone collagen have helped to distinguish diets composed of, for example, animal protein versus plant protein or terrestrial versus marine diets.

Recently, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that this technique is failing to provide adequate data in regions with complex ecosystems where diverse dietary resources are available. Compound-specific isotope analysis of individual amino acids, by contrast, can distinguish these more complex dietary regimes.

Vicky Oelze, assistant professor in biological anthropology, sees great potential for CSIA in her research on the diets and ecology of apes and prehistoric humans. “I want to use the compound-specific approach to answer questions on meat consumption in wild chimpanzees, because the patterns we’re seeing with bulk isotopes are often super confusing,” Oelze said. “If this method works out, we have a much more precise tool we can use for future work on meat consumption frequencies in wild fauna.”

CSIA will also be useful in a number of other areas, such as McCarthy’s research using deep-sea corals to look at millennial-scale oceanographic change. It can be used to investigate biogeochemical cycles, such as how land use changes have impacted nutrient dynamics in coastal and marine habitats, and for other applications such as studying the changes in food web dynamics in modern populations of marine mammals.

If all goes well, the new isotope equipment will be installed and ready for use in standard applications in spring 2019, McCarthy said.

The Stable Isotope Lab in the Earth and Marine Sciences building will be expanded to accommodate the new isotope-ratio-monitoring mass spectrometer. The lab will bring together scientists from different departments, divisions, and regional institutions, and will serve as a training ground for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as visiting researchers.

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition

UCSC Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)


UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

UC Santa Cruz campus
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

Lick Observatory's Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building
Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow
The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch) UCSC Lick Nickel telescope

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.