Knowledge is power, but knowledge isn’t always easy to come by. This is especially true when researchers are dealing with microorganisms and contamination, since there are so many options at that level which need to be considered. Scientists have developed a variety of investigative techniques to help them study microorganisms, usually by taking advantage of chemical markers that can be distinguished once they pass through an organism. Stable isotope probing is one of those methods, and it has a great deal of potential to help researchers in a variety of areas.
What Is It?
Stable isotope probing is a technique that researchers can use to identify the microorganisms that are living in an area. It introduces chemicals to those organisms in order to create specific biomarkers in their DNA, which can be used to separate the ones that consumed the substrate from those that did not and to determine their species.
How Stable Isotope Probing Works
Stable isotope requires a marked substrate. The process begins by producing that substrate. The researcher adds a rare but stable isotope to the substrate, one that they can easily distinguish from other forms of the element in a lab that will not change into another form over time.
The researchers then feed the marked substrate to the organisms that they wish to study. The organisms will break down the substrate like any other food, but the stable isotopes will remain distinct. The researchers can then collect samples from the organisms and use a variety of laboratory techniques to separate the samples that include the stable isotope from those that do not. DNA samples are preferred for this process, since they can then sequence the DNA to identify the species that consumed the substrate.
Why Use It?
This process can clearly and conclusively demonstrate that organisms are consuming a specific substrate, and can even be used to figure out which organisms are at fault. That can be useful if a property owner suspects that microbes are causing damage, and want to make sure before they take steps to remove the problem. Since the process can also identify the organisms, it also enables the owner to use a targeted removal process to minimizes collateral damage.
The method also has some value for researchers. In most cases, researchers who study microorganisms need to introduce biomakers to the organisms in order to study them. Previously, that forced them make do with the ones that they could culture and grow under laboratory conditions. Stable isotope probing provides a way for them to introduce biomarkers to DNA outside of a petri dish. That vastly increases the number of organisms that they can mark and study.