Stable Isotope Fractionation of Metals and Metalloids in Plants: A Review

Matthias Wiggenhauser, Rebekah E.T. Moore, Peng Wang, Gerd Patrick Bienert, Kristian Holst Laursen, Simon Blotevogel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


This work critically reviews stable isotope fractionation of essential (B, Mg, K, Ca, Fe, Ni, Cu, Zn, Mo), beneficial (Si), and non-essential (Cd, Tl) metals and metalloids in plants. The review (i) provides basic principles and methodologies for non-traditional isotope analyses, (ii) compiles isotope fractionation for uptake and translocation for each element and connects them to physiological processes, and (iii) interlinks knowledge from different elements to identify common and contrasting drivers of isotope fractionation. Different biological and physico-chemical processes drive isotope fractionation in plants. During uptake, Ca and Mg fractionate through root apoplast adsorption, Si through diffusion during membrane passage, Fe and Cu through reduction prior to membrane transport in strategy I plants, and Zn, Cu, and Cd through membrane transport. During translocation and utilization, isotopes fractionate through precipitation into insoluble forms, such as phytoliths (Si) or oxalate (Ca), structural binding to cell walls (Ca), and membrane transport and binding to soluble organic ligands (Zn, Cd). These processes can lead to similar (Cu, Fe) and opposing (Ca vs. Mg, Zn vs. Cd) isotope fractionation patterns of chemically similar elements in plants. Isotope fractionation in plants is influenced by biotic factors, such as phenological stages and plant genetics, as well as abiotic factors. Different nutrient supply induced shifts in isotope fractionation patterns for Mg, Cu, and Zn, suggesting that isotope process tracing can be used as a tool to detect and quantify different uptake pathways in response to abiotic stresses. However, the interpretation of isotope fractionation in plants is challenging because many isotope fractionation factors associated with specific processes are unknown and experiments are often exploratory. To overcome these limitations, fundamental geochemical research should expand the database of isotope fractionation factors and disentangle kinetic and equilibrium fractionation. In addition, plant growth studies should further shift toward hypothesis-driven experiments, for example, by integrating contrasting nutrient supplies, using established model plants, genetic approaches, and by combining isotope analyses with complementary speciation techniques. To fully exploit the potential of isotope process tracing in plants, the interdisciplinary expertise of plant and isotope geochemical scientists is required.

Original languageEnglish
Article number840941
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
StatePublished - 19 Apr 2022


  • fractionation
  • metalloids
  • metals
  • multiple-collector-ICP-MS
  • plant uptake
  • process tracing
  • stable isotopes
  • translocation


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