Large D/H variations in bacterial lipids reflect central metabolic pathways

Xinning Zhang, Aimee L. Gillespie, Alex L. Sessions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

168 Scopus citations


Large hydrogen-isotopic (D/H) fractionations between lipids and growth water have been observed in most organisms studied to date. These fractionations are generally attributed to isotope effects in the biosynthesis of lipids, and are frequently assumed to be approximately constant for the purpose of reconstructing climatic variables. Here, we report D/H fractionations between lipids and water in 4 cultured members of the phylum Proteobacteria, and show that they can vary by up to 500‰ in a single organism. The variation cannot be attributed to lipid biosynthesis as there is no significant change in these pathways between cultures, nor can it be attributed to changing substrate D/H ratios. More importantly, lipid/water D/H fractionations vary systematically with metabolism: chemoautotrophic growth (approximately -200 to -400‰), photoautotrophic growth (-150 to -250‰), heterotrophic growth on sugars (0 to -150‰), and heterotrophic growth on TCA-cycle precursors and intermediates (-50 to +200‰) all yield different fractionations. We hypothesize that the D/H ratios of lipids are controlled largely by those of NADPH used for biosynthesis, rather than by isotope effects within the lipid biosynthetic pathway itself. Our results suggest that different central metabolic pathways yield NADPH - and indirectly lipids - with characteristic isotopic compositions. If so, lipid δD values could become an important biogeochemical tool for linking lipids to energy metabolism, and would yield information that is highly complementary to that provided by 13C about pathways of carbon fixation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)12580-12586
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 4 2009
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Fatty acids
  • Fractionation
  • Hydrogen isotopes
  • Metabolism


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