Hydrogen and oxygen in brine shrimp chitin reflect environmental water and dietary isotopic composition


Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios of the common structural biopolymer chitin are a potential recorder of ecological and environmental information, but our understanding of the mechanisms of incorporation of H and O from environmental substrates into chitin is limited. We report the results of a set of experiments in which the isotopic compositions of environmental water and diet were varied independently in order to assess the contribution of these variables to the H and O isotopic composition of Artemia franciscana chitin. Hydrogen isotope ratios of chitin were strongly linearly correlated with both food and water, with approximately 26% of the hydrogen signal reflecting food and approximately 38% reflecting water. Oxygen isotopes were also strongly correlated with the isotopic composition of water and food, but whereas 69% of oxygen in chitin exchanged with environmental water, only 10% was derived from food. We propose that these observations reflect the position-specific, partial exchange of H and O atoms with brine shrimp body water during the processes of digestion and chitin biosynthesis. Comparison of culture experiments with a set of natural samples collected from the Great Salt Lake, UT in 2006 shows that, with some exceptions, oxygen isotope compositions of chitin track those of water, whereas hydrogen isotopes vary inversely with those of lake water. The different behavior of the two isotopic systems can be explained in terms of a dietary shift from allochthonous particulate matter with relatively higher δ2H values in the early spring to autochthonous particulate matter with significantly lower δ2H values in the late summer to autumn. These results suggest oxygen in chitin may be a valuable proxy for the oxygen isotopic composition of environmental water, whereas hydrogen isotope values from the same molecule may reveal ecological and biogeochemical changes within lakes.

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