Multi-Isotope Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry Combining Heavy Water 2H with 15N Labeling As Complementary Tracers for Metabolic Heterogeneity at the Single-Cell Level
Abstract:Metabolic rates of microbial communities constitute a key physiological parameter for understanding the in situ growth constraints for life in any environment. Isotope labeling techniques provide a powerful approach for measuring such biological activity, due to the use of isotopically enriched substrate tracers whose incorporation into biological materials can be detected with high sensitivity by isotope-ratio mass spectrometry. Nano-meter scale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) combined with stable isotope labeling provides a unique tool for studying the spatiometabolic activity of microbial populations at the single cell level in order to assess both community structure and population diversity.
However, assessing the distribution and range of microbial activity in complex environmental systems with slow-growing organisms, diverse carbon and nitrogen sources, or heterotrophic subpopulations poses a tremendous technical challenge because the introduction of isotopically labeled substrates frequently changes the nutrient availability and can inflate or bias measures of activity. Here, we present the use of hydrogen isotope labeling with deuterated water as an important new addition to the isotopic toolkit and apply it for the determination of single cell microbial activities by NanoSIMS imaging. This tool provides a labeling technique that minimally alters any aquatic chemical environment, can be administered with strong labels even in minimal addition (natural background is very low), is an equally universal substrate for all forms of life even in complex, carbon and nitrogen saturated systems, and can be combined with other isotopic tracers.
The combination of heavy water labeling with the most commonly used NanoSIMS tracer, 15N, is technically challenging but opens up a powerful new set of multi-tracer experiments for the study of microbial activity in complex communities. We present the first truly simultaneous single cell triple isotope system measurements of 2H/1H, 13C/12C and 15N/14N and apply it to study of microbial metabolic heterogeneity and nitrogen metabolism in a continuous culture case study. Our data provide insight into both the diversity of microbial activity rates, as well as patterns of ammonium utilization at the single cell level.