Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer Facility

Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer FacilityThe Stable Isotope Laboratory, located in BRB 440 (5 Cummington) and managed by Robert Michener, was established in 1989 as a regional center for stable isotope analysis. Since then, we have developed into a well-respected world-class facility, collaborating with researchers throughout the United States, as well as in Europe and South America. We are both a contract lab and a research lab, and encourage researchers and graduate students to contact with Dr. Adrien Finzi, Dr. Pamela Templer, or Robert Michener about collaborative research possibilities.

The past decade has seen an explosion in the development of techniques for the use of natural abundance isotopes in ecological research. Stable isotopes are naturally occurring variations of elements found in nature, differing in the number of neutrons found in the nucleus. Since the different isotopes of a given element are virtually identical, they behave in very predictable ways in physical and chemical reactions. The elements of interests to biologists and ecologists include carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur.

The use of stable isotopes covers a broad range of applications, including such things as tracing past climatic conditions, determining the origin of life, tracing food webs, understanding paleodiets, estimating yields of commercially important crops, and characterizing tropical rainforests. Environmental chemists have used stable isotopes to determine the source of pollutants and to monitor sites under remediation. Stable isotopes are also used extensively in the medical field as a tracer for important biochemical processes. Our laboratory has been involved in many of these applications. We have also collaborated closely with scientists at SUNY Syracuse in a project using stable nitrogen isotopes to look at the effects of acid rain in a watershed in the Adirondack Mountains. Another project worked with doctors at Stanford University interested in developing a technique to determine if the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori was present in symptomatic patients; this procedure has since been patented and represents a breakthrough for chronic ulcer sufferers. We also specialize in determining the field metabolic rates of free ranging animals. In the past, mammologists looking at the energetics of animals have been limited to specialized chambers in the laboratory. A technique called doubly-labeled water now enables scientists to study animals in their natural habitats without having to disturb them by bringing them back to the lab.

The Boston University Stable Isotope Laboratory provides services to educational and governmental institutions, and to private industry. Our state-of-the-art facility includes a Finnigan Delta-S and two GV Instruments IsoPrime isotope ratio mass spectrometers, elemental analyzers, MultiFlow device, vacuum lines, furnaces, and associated peripherals for processing a variety of organic and inorganic samples. One EA is capable of pyrolysis of water samples for oxygen 18 and uses the ChromeHD procedure for deuterium.

We employ undergraduate Work-Study students to do most of the sample preparation, giving them hands-on experience in a modern laboratory. Graduate students at Boston University are trained in the various techniques and do their own sample preparation.

The Isotope Laboratory is operated as a nonprofit facility and is open to either collaborative research or to samples being run on a contract basis. Boston University Investigators are eligible for isotope analyses at a reduced cost. A list of the types of samples and analyses we are able to perform, as well as sample size requirements and prices, is available in the laboratory or on our website. Due to the nature of stable isotope analysis and the sensitivity of the mass spectrometer, the laboratory is not open for use by students and faculty without prior training and approval by Robert Michener. For any further questions, comments or discussions, Robert can be reached at Ext. 3-6980 or

Mass Spectrometist: Robert Michener

Robert has been running the Boston University Stable Isotope Laboratory since it opened in 1989. Prior to that time, he worked with Dr. Brian Fry at the Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He has extensive experience in operating and maintaining the Finnigan and GVI isotope ratio mass spectrometers. In addition to operating the facility as a contract laboratory, Bob is interested in establishing collaborative research projects. His research currently focuses on marine and freshwater aquatic food webs, pollution, and the use of isotopes as a natural tracer of anthropogenic inputs. However, he is open to discussing other possible research opportunities with interested individuals.

In addition to his laboratory work, Robert has done field sampling and is familiar with the necessary techniques and procedures. Methods development is a major objective of the lab, and he is more than willing to discuss novel ideas with potential collaborators.