Skip to main content Accessibility help

An introduction to the use of tracers in nutrition and metabolism

  • Michael J. Rennie (a1)

The present article is a review written at a level suitable for students and new workers to the field of techniques in common current use for the measurement of static and dynamic features of metabolism, especially nutritional metabolism. It covers the nature of radioactive and stable-isotope tracers, the means of measuring them, and the advantages and disadvantages of their use. The greater part of the review deals with methods for the measurement of pool sizes and metabolic processes, with the emphasis being on protein metabolism, a field the author knows best. The examples given are from a variety of sources, including the work of the author, but the principles underlying the techniques are universally applicable to all metabolic investigations using tracers.

    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      An introduction to the use of tracers in nutrition and metabolism
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      An introduction to the use of tracers in nutrition and metabolism
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      An introduction to the use of tracers in nutrition and metabolism
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Corresponding Author: Professor Michael J. Rennie, fax +44 (0) 1382 345514, email
Hide All
Arner, P (1999) Microdialysis: use in human exercise studies. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58, 913917.
Bennet, WM, Connacher, AA, Scrimgeour, CS, Jung, RT & Rennie, MJ (1990) L-[15N\Phenylalanine and L-[l-13C\leucine leg exchange and plasma kinetics during amino acid infusion and euglycaemic hyperinsulinaemia; evidence for stimulation of muscle and whole-body protein synthesis in man by insulin. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 49, 179A.
Bennet, WM, O'Keefe, SJD & Haymond, MW (1993) Comparison of precursor pools with leucine, a-ketoisocaproate, and phenylalanine tracers used to measure splanchnic protein synthesis in man. Metabolism 42, 15.
Berthold, HK, Crain, PF, Gouni, I, Reeds, PJ & Klein, PD (1995) Evidence for incorporation of intact dietary pyrimidine (but not purine) nucleosides into hepatic RNA. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 92, 1012310127.
Biolo, G, Chinkes, D, Zhang, XJ & Wolfe, RR (1992) A new model to determine in vivo the relationship between amino acid transmembrane transport and protein kinetics in muscle. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition 16, 305315.
Boza, JJ, Jahoor, F & Reeds, PJ (1996) Ribonucleic acid nucleotides in maternal and fetal tissues derive almost exclusively from synthesis de novo in pregnant mice. Journal of Nutrition 126, 17491758.
Calder, AG, Anderson, SE, Grant, I, McNurlan, MA & Garlick, PJ (1993) The determination of low D5-phenylalanine enrichment (0.002–0.09 atom percent excess) after conversion to phenylethylamine in relation to protein turnover studies by gas-chromatography electron-ionisation mass-spectrometry. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 6, 421424.
Chien, PFW, Smith, K, Watt, PW, Scrimgeour, CM, Taylor, DJ & Rennie, MJ (1993) Protein-turnover in the human fetus studied at term using stable-isotope tracer amino-acids. American Journal of Physiology 265, E31E35.
Cobelli, C, Toffolo, G, Bier, DM & Nosaldini, R (1987) Models to interpret kinetic data in stable isotope tracer studies. American Journal of Physiology 253, E551E564.
Collins, A, Venkatesan, S, Garcia, P, Pacy, PJ & Halliday, D (1992) Very low density lipoprotein apolipoproteins B-100 and E turnover in control subjects using L-[l-13C\leucine. Biochemical Society Transactions 20, 102S.
Corbett, ME, Boyd, EJS, Penston, JG, Wormsley, KG, Watt, PW & Rennie, MJ (1995) Pentagastrin increases pepsin-secretion without increasing its fractional synthetic rate. American Journal of Physiology 32, E418E425.
Forbes, GB (1987) Human Body Composition: Growth, Aging, Nutrition and Activity, 1st ed. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Hellerstein, M, Hanley, MB, Cesar, D, Siler, S, Papageorgopoulos, C, Wieder, E, Schmidt, D, Hoh, R, Neese, R, Macallan, D, Deeks, S & McCune, JM (1999) Directly measured kinetics of circulating T lymphocytes in normal and HIV-1-infected humans. Nature Medicine 5, 8389.
Koletzko, B, Sauerwald, T & Demmelmair, H (1997) Safety of stable isotope use. European Journal of Pediatrics 156, S12S17.
McNurlan, MA, Essén, P, Heys, SD, Buchan, V, Garlick, PJ & Wernerman, J (1991) Measurement of protein synthesis in human skeletal muscle: further investigation of the flooding technique. Clinical Science 81, 557564.
McNurlan, MA & Garlick, PJ (1980) Contribution of rat liver and gastrointestinal tract to whole-body protein synthesis in the rat. Biochemical Journal 186, 381383.
Macdonald, I (1999) Arterio–venous differences to study macronutrient metabolism: introduction and overview. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58, 871875.
Marway, JS, Anderson, GJ, Miell, JP, Ross, R, Grimble, GK, Bonner, AB, Gibbons, WA, Peters, TJ & Preedy, VR (1996) Application of proton NMR-spectroscopy to measurement of whole-body RNA degradation rates – effects of surgical stress in human patients. Clinica Chimica Acta 252, 123135.
Matthews, DE, Bier, DM, Rennie, MJ, Edwards, RH, Halliday, D, Millward, DJ & Clugston, GA (1981) Regulation of leucine metabolism in man: a stable isotope study. Science 214, 11291131.
Matthews, DE, Conway, JM, Young, VR & Bier, DM (1981) Glycine nitrogen metabolism in man. Metabolism 30, 886893.
Meier-Augenstein, W (1997) The chromatographic side of isotope ratio mass spectrometry – Pitfalls and answers. LC–GC Magazine of Separation Science 15, 244256.
Nakshabendi, IM, Obeidat, W, Russell, RI, Downie, S, Smith, K & Rennie, MJ (1995) Gut mucosal protein synthesis measured using intravenous and intragastric delivery of stable tracer amino acids. American Journal of Physiology 269, E996E999.
Perez, JF & Reeds, PJ (1998) A new stable isotope method enables the simultaneous measurement of nucleic acid and protein synthesis in vivo in mice. Journal of Nutrition 128, 15621569.
Rennie, MJ, Meier-Augenstein, W, Watt, PW, Patel, A, Begley, IS & Scrimgeour, CM (1996) Use of continuous-flow combustion MS in studies of human metabolism. Biochemical Society Transactions 24, 927932.
Rennie, MJ, Smith, K, Watt, PW, Barua, JM & Bennet, WM (1992) Methods of assessment of muscle protein turnover and their application to problems in clinical nutrition. Rivista Italiana di Nutrizione Parenterale et Enterale 20, 6371.
Scrimgeour, CM, Gibson, JNA, Downie, S & Rennie, MJ (1993) Collagen synthesis in human bone using stable-isotope-labelled alanine and proline. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 52, 258A.
Smith, K, Barua, JM, Scrimgeour, CM & Rennie, MJ (1992a) Flooding with L-[1-13C\leucine stimulates human muscle protein incorporation of continuously infused L-[1-13C\valine. American Journal of Physiology 262, E372E376.
Smith, K, Downie, SB, Watt, PW, Rickhuss, PK, Barua, JM, Scrimgeour, CM & Rennie, MJ (1992b) Increased incorporation of [13C\valine into plasma albumin as a result of a flooding dose of leucine in man. Clinical Nutrition 11, 77 Abstr.
Smith, K, Essén, P, McNurlan, M, Rennie, MJ, Garlick, PJ & Wernerman, J (1992c) A multi-tracer investigation of the effect of a flooding dose administered during the constant infusion of tracer amino acid on the rate of tracer incorporation into human muscle protein. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 51, 109A.
Smith, K & Rennie, MJ (1990) Protein turnover and amino acid metabolism in human skeletal muscle. In Ballière's Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism: Muscle Metabolism, pp. 461498 [Harris, JB and Turnbull, DM, editors.] London: Ballière Tindall.
Smith, K, Reynolds, N, Downie, S, Patel, A & Rennie, MJ (1998) Effects of flooding amino acids on incorporation of labeled amino acids into human muscle protein. American Journal of Physiology 38, E73E78.
Thomas, AG, Miller, V, Taylor, F, Maycock, P, Scrimgeour, CM & Rennie, MJ (1992) Whole body protein turnover in childhood Crohn's disease. Gut 33, 675677.
Turnlund, JR (1991) Bioavailability of dietary minerals to humans – the stable isotope approach. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 30, 387396.
Turnlund, JR, Michel, MC, Keyes, WR, King, JC & Margen, S (1982) Use of enriched stable isotopes to determine zinc and iron absorption in elderly men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 35, 10331040.
Waterlow, JC (1984) Protein turnover with special reference to man. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology 69, 409438.
Watt, PW, Corbett, ME & Rennie, MJ (1992) Stimulation of protein synthesis in pig skeletal muscle by infusion of amino acids during constant insulin availability. American Journal of Physiology 263, 453460.
Watt, PW, Lindsay, Y, Scrimgeour, CM, Chien, PA, Gibson, JN, Taylor, DJ & Rennie, MJ (1991) Isolation of aminoacyl-tRNA and its labeling with stable-isotope tracers: Use in studies of human tissue protein synthesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 88, 58925896.
Westerterp, KR (1999) Body composition, water turnover and energy turnover assessment with labelled water: Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58, 945951.
Wolfe, RR (1992) Radioactive and Stable-isotope Tracers in Biomedicine: Principles and Practice of Kinetic Analysis.New York: Wiley-Liss Inc.
Yarasheski, KE, Smith, K, Rennie, MJ & Bier, DM (1992) Measurement of muscle protein fractional synthetic rate by capillary gas-chromatography combustion isotope ratio mass-spectrometry. Biological Mass Spectrometry 21, 486490.
Zhang, XJ, Chinkes, DL, Sakurai, Y & Wolfe, RR (1996) An isotopic method for measurement of muscle protein fractional breakdown rate in vivo. American Journal of Physiology 270, E759E767.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Proceedings of the Nutrition Society
  • ISSN: 0029-6651
  • EISSN: 1475-2719
  • URL: /core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed