UAF Engineering Building

The future location of a new Isotope Analyzer during a tour of the UAF Engineering Building Wednesday morning, September 21, 2016. 

FAIRBANKS — The University of Alaska Fairbanks will soon have another way to gather information from samples the size of a fingernail, courtesy of a new instrument in the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility.

The new instrument, which is yet to be installed at the facility, is called a gas chromatograph isotope ratio mass spectrometer. It can chemically target individual bits of carbon to allow researchers a deeper understanding of various organisms.

“The way we typically measure something like a fingernail is you take a little clipping of the fingernail and use something the size of a pinhead, and you pop that sample into a little tin capsule and it drops down into an oven that combusts the sample,” Dr. Matthew Wooller said.

This process is called bulk analysis. With the gas chromatograph isotope ratio mass spectrometer, samples are first broken down and then piped through the gas chromatograph.

Wooller is the director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and a professor with the College of Fisheries and Ocean Science. The facility is a nonprofit service lab based at the university specializing in measuring stable isotope composition.

“We do analyses, contract analyses, for researchers and student projects from all over the state of Alaska and across the U.S. and even internationally,” he said. “People send us samples from all over.”

The gist of the facility’s research, Wooller said, is that organisms are what they eat.

“All the things that we eat have carbon and nitrogen in them, and those elements, carbon and nitrogen in particular, have different isotope ratios,” Wooller said.

The facility can measure isotopes and therefore measure what various organisms have been eating. But it goes deeper.

“You’re also where you eat, as well,” Wooller said. “The things that we eat are grown in different locations, and different locations have different isotope signatures, as well.”

So from basic samples of fingernails, tissue or other organic compound, researchers can determine where an organism comes from, what it’s been eating and even what it is, since isotopes are so particular.

“You can also take a fossil of something and you can use the isotopes of the fossils in something, say an ancient mammoth, and you can say something about where the ancient mammoth ate and where it lived,” he said.

The new spectrometer will allow researchers access to a different process than they might normally use to measure isotopes.

“The new instrument, what’s kind of cool about it, is you’ll do some chemistry at the front end in the fume hood where you take that piece of fingernail and you break it down into a constituent of amino acids,” Wooller said.

Then researchers will be able to measure the isotope composition of each individual amino acid.

The equipment was purchased with a $140,400 grant to the university through the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, as well as matching funds that came from the Office of the UAF Vice Chancellor for Research, Institute of Arctic Biology and ASIF.

“Our goal is to help give students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks the opportunity to learn with the best equipment. With this grant, students and faculty can increase the volume of research they are doing in biological, geological and environmental science, which will lead to more discoveries and a better understanding of the world around us,” Dr. Moses Lee, senior director for scientific research and enrichment programs at M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust said in a news release.

“There’s a number of different programs and departments and units across the campus and even outside of UAF who are actively going to be using it,” Wooller said.

He said the new device can be used across various disciplines, citing work with the university’s anthropology and archaeology departments, the Institute of Arctic Biology and the College of Fisheries and Ocean Science.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7572.