Nitrogen isotopic compositions (δ15N) of source and trophic amino acids (AAs) are crucial tracers of N sources and trophic enrichments in diverse fields, including archeology, astrobiochemistry, ecology, oceanography, and paleo‐sciences. The current analytical technique using gas chromatography‐combustion‐isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC/C/IRMS) requires derivatization, which is not compatible with some key AAs. Another approach using high‐performance liquid chromatography‐elemental analyzer‐IRMS (HPLC/EA/IRMS) may experience coelution issues with other compounds in certain types of samples, and the highly sensitive nano‐EA/IRMS instrumentations are not widely available.
We present a method for high‐precision δ15N measurements of AAs (δ15N‐AA) optimized for canonical source AA‐phenylalanine (Phe) and trophic AA‐glutamic acid (Glu). This offline approach entails purification and separation via high‐pressure ion‐exchange chromatography (IC) with automated fraction collection, the sequential chemical conversion of AA to nitrite and then to nitrous oxide (N2O), and the final determination of δ15N of the produced N2O via purge‐and‐trap continuous‐flow isotope ratio mass spectrometry (PT/CF/IRMS).
The cross‐plots of δ15N of Glu and Phe standards (four different natural‐abundance levels) generated by this method and their accepted values have a linear regression slope of 1 and small intercepts demonstrating high accuracy. The precisions were 0.36‰–0.67‰ for Phe standards and 0.27‰–0.35‰ for Glu standards. Our method and the GC/C/IRMS approach produced equivalent δ15N values for two lab standards (McCarthy Lab AA mixture and cyanobacteria) within error. We further tested our method on a wide range of natural sample matrices and obtained reasonable results.
Our method provides a reliable alternative to the current methods for δ15N‐AA measurement as IC or HPLC‐based techniques that can collect underivatized AAs are widely available. Our chemical approach that converts AA to N2O can be easily implemented in laboratories currently analyzing δ15N of N2O using PT/CF/IRMS. This method will help promote the use of δ15N‐AA in important studies of N cycling and trophic ecology in a wide range of research areas.