Sulfur isotope analysis of organic sulfur‐containing molecules has previously been hindered by challenging preparatory chemistry and analytical requirements for large sample sizes. The natural‐abundance sulfur isotopic compositions of the sulfur‐containing amino acids, cysteine and methionine, have therefore not yet been investigated despite potential utility in biomedicine, ecology, oceanography, biogeochemistry, and other fields.
Cysteine and methionine were subjected to hot acid hydrolysis followed by quantitative oxidation in performic acid to yield cysteic acid and methionine sulfone. These stable, oxidized products were then separated by reversed‐phase high‐performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and verified via offline liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS). The sulfur isotope ratios (δ34S values) of purified analytes were then measured via combustion elemental analyzer coupled to isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA/IRMS). The EA was equipped with a temperature‐ramped chromatographic column and programmable helium carrier flow rates.
On‐column focusing of SO2in the EA/IRMS system, combined with reduced He carrier flow during elution, greatly improved sensitivity, allowing precise (0.1–0.3‰ 1 s.d.) δ34S measurements of 1 to 10 μg sulfur. We validated that our method for purification of cysteine and methionine was negligibly fractionating using amino acid and protein standards. Proof‐of‐concept measurements of fish muscle tissue and bacteria demonstrated differences up to 4‰ between the δ34S values of cysteine and methionine that can be connected to biosynthetic pathways.
We have developed a sensitive, precise method for measuring the natural‐abundance sulfur isotopic compositions of cysteine and methionine isolated from biological samples. This capability opens up diverse applications of sulfur isotopes in amino acids and proteins, from use as a tracer in organisms and the environment, to fundamental aspects of metabolism and biosynthesis.