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If you had the chance…. What would you ask about isotope fingerprints and IRMS applications?

Team TFS
Team TFS
fingerprint_questionWhether at work or within a new circle of friends, with colleagues or with a long-lost classmate or with a stranger in a train, you can become victim of small talk.

The internet responded to our help message and there are plenty of lists and “how-tos” for small talk (here or here, and here).

If you are also looking for small talk tips, today you will have a new list to use from yesterday’s panel discussion with our Isotope Hunters about Isotope Fingerprints. The common thread between forensic application --: from food and beverage adulteration to crime scenes investigations (attend the on-demand version here) -- we collected a series of questions about isotope fingerprints and IRMS applications which you can use in various occasions, from your next IRMS conference to your extended family dinner party. They are IRMS-expert tested and they answered some of your most interesting questions.

Do you have questions about isotope fingerprints and IRMS applications? Share them in the comments.

What are isotope fingerprints?

Materials from nature and industrial processes have a fingerprint, which is a unique chemical signature within their structure that gives them an identity that is different from others, just like our own fingerprints. This chemical difference is called the isotope fingerprint and it can be visualized using a technique known as isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS).

IRMS measures carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, or oxygen isotopes in samples and their variations. Isotopic measurements provide quantitative and empirical data that are reproducible and easy to validate.

How can we use isotope fingerprints results for our day-to-day challenges?

For many challenges in environmental studies, food authenticity or forensics, often the ultimate aim is to understand the source and origin of the sample. This gives us the most important information if we need to prove where our sample is coming from or how it has changed over time. We can do this by using isotopes because natural and synthetic materials and their environmental processes leave a fingerprint that we can detect with IRMS.

Our series of e-learning sessions give an overview of how isotopes in nature/material are formed and what kind of challenges they can help you solve in different applications.

Why are isotope fingerprints used for forensics applications?

The hydrogen and oxygen isotope fingerprints in plants, for example, can be used to determine the geographical origin of a material, such as coffee or vegetables, or trace animal and human movements. How is this possible?

It is the result of how water moves through the hydrological cycle and we can thank rainfall in a big way. We know that water molecules are made up of only hydrogen and oxygen atoms, however, the specific hydrogen and oxygen atom in the molecule can change as a result of evaporation, condensation, precipitation and sublimation processes. These evaporation, condensation, precipitation and sublimation processes that influence the isotope fingerprints of water and vary by latitude, altitude, proximity to the shoreline, cultivation practices, soil and geological processes and temperature.

These processes result in the oxygen and hydrogen isotope fingerprints changing in rainfall as you move further inland from the shoreline and with increasing altitude because heavier isotopes are the first to be released from the clouds. Across the world, there are big differences in the isotope fingerprints of water. This provides a spatial tool that can help track the origin of a material or human provenance or movements.

Are there official methods that regulate the use of isotope fingerprints?

Among the methods used to identify geographical origin and determining potential adulterations, there are standardized methods (or official international methods) for stable isotope analysis of food and beverage samples that are aimed at protecting product origin, authenticity and label claims.

The isotope fingerprint of food and beverage goods is region- or process-specific, which means that products can be differentiated based on geographical region (cheese, coffee, sugar, fish and animal feeding areas), botanical processes (beans, seeds, olive oil, vanilla), soil and fertilization processes (fruits and vegetables) and fraudulent practices (sugar addition to honey, watering of wines and spirits). These processes can be traced using carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, with their variations indicating the origin and history of food and beverage products.

To listen to the answers from the isotope hunters on the Panel Discussion: register here.

Follow the adventures of the Isotope Hunters as they investigate the origins and authenticity of samples with isotope fingerprints. Using isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), the Isotope Hunter gains access to information on geographic region, botanical processes, soil and fertilization processes, and fraudulent practices. Are you an Isotope Hunter? Investigate here.

Don’t miss the interviews with the Isotope: Access the collection of presentations and interviews of the Isotope Hunters, who are using isotope fingerprints to uncover the real history of their samples. Access the sessions now and become an Isotope Hunter!