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Stable Relative Mole

isotope atomic mass fraction

S 31.972 071 174 0.9499
S 32.971 458 910 0.0075
S 33.967 8670 0.0425
S 35.967 081 0.0001

Sulfur isotopes in biology

S has a half-life of 87 days, which is an ideal duration for use as a conservative tracer in
atmospheric processes. 35SO 2 gas is produced as a natural product of argon exposure to cosmic
rays in the atmosphere. Because 35SO2 gas is present in the atmosphere and then precipitates and
falls as moisture in the form of 35SO42-, 35S can act as a tracer to study air mass transport
dynamics and atmospheric oxidation capacity [139-141]. Analyses of 35 S in lake water and
precipitation can also be used as a tracer to monitor contributions of sulfur that originated in
precipitation to surface waters. If a water tests positive for isotope 35S, it provides evidence that
the water had been affected by recent (<~1 year) precipitation [139, 140, 142]. 35S is used in
direct labeling of elemental sulfur or sulfate sources to trace the fate of sulfur in fertilizers [143].
Stable sulfur isotope-amount ratios (n(34 S)/n(32 S)) can be used to distinguish whether
animal tissues grew in freshwater or in marine ecosystems. The isotopes do not isotopically
fractionate substantially with trophic influences (the movement of sulfur through and into plant
and animal systems), and the isotope-amount ratio n(34 S)/n(32 S) usually is substantially different
between freshwater and marine environments. As an example, by analyzing sulfur isotope-
amount ratios in bird feathers, the environment in which the bird was living when these feathers
developed can be determined. This enables one to track bird habitats and migration patterns
throughout the year (Figure 1) [144].

Sulfur isotopes in Earth/planetary science

Molecules, atoms, and ions of the stable isotopes of sulfur possess slightly different physical,
chemical, and biological properties, and they commonly will be fractionated during physical,
chemical, and biological processes, giving rise to variations in isotopic abundances and in
atomic weights. There are substantial variations in the isotopic abundances of sulfur in natural
terrestrial materials (Figure 2). These variations are useful in investigating the origin of
substances and studying environmental, hydrological, and geological processes [1]. The isotope-
amount ratio n(34S)/n(32S) can be used to trace natural and anthropogenic sources of sulfur.
Examples include studies of acid mine drainage, the cycling of sulfur in agricultural watersheds,
groundwater contamination by leachate (water flowing from a landfill with dissolved and
suspended material) from landfills, and sources of salinity in coastal aquifers [143, 145, 146].
Fig. 1: Variation in atomic weight with isotopic composition of selected sulfur-bearing
materials (modified from [1]).

Sulfur isotopes in forensic science and anthropology

The isotope-amount ratio n(34 S)/n(32 S) can be used as a tracer to authenticate meat from cattle.
First, stable isotopes are measured to infer the dietary source of the cattle. Once the source of
the diet is found, the isotopic compositions can be traced in certain muscle groups of the cattle
and can be used to determine if the diet of the animal has been changed or if the feed is
consistent with what the animal has been claimed to have been fed [147].
Fig. 2: Sulfur isotopic abundances of Tianyuan 1 early modern human found in Eurasia, three
terrestrial animals from Tianyaun Cave (Tianyuandong) in the Zhoukoudian region of China, and
two fish from Donghulin (modified from [148]). Based on sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen isotopic
analyses of bones from the early modern human and the associated animals in Tianyuan Cave
and the Donghulin site, Hu et al. [148] conclude that the human most likely obtained a
substantial portion of its protein from a freshwater ecosystem, probably from freshwater fish.

alpha particle – a positively charged nuclear particle identical with the nucleus of a helium atom
consisting of two protons and two neutrons.

anthropogenic – resulting from human activity. [return]

atomic number (Z) – The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom.

atomic weight (relative mean atomic mass) – the sum of the products of the relative atomic
mass and the mole fraction of each stable and long-lived radioactive isotope of that element in
the sample. The symbol of the atomic weight of element E is Ar(E), and the symbol of the atomic
weight of an atom (isotope) of element E having mass number A is Ar( AE). Because relative
atomic masses are scaled (expressed relative) to one-twelfth the mass of a carbon-12 atom,
atomic weights are dimensionless. [return]

cosmic rays – extremely high-energy radiation, mainly originating outside the Solar System,
consisting of one or more charged particles, such as protons, alpha particles, and larger atomic

electron – elementary particle of matter with a negative electric charge and a rest mass of about
9.109 × 10–31 kg.

element (chemical element) – a species of atoms; all atoms with the same number of protons in
the atomic nucleus. A pure chemical substance composed of atoms with the same number of
protons in the atomic nucleus [703].

gamma rays (gamma radiation) – a stream of high-energy electromagnetic radiation given off
by an atomic nucleus undergoing radioactive decay. The energies of gamma rays are higher
than those of X-rays; thus, gamma rays have greater penetrating power.

half-life (radioactive) – the time interval that it takes for the total number of atoms of any
radioactive isotope to decay and leave only one-half of the original number of atoms. [return]

isotope – one of two or more species of atoms of a given element (having the same number of
protons in the nucleus) with different atomic masses (different number of neutrons in the
nucleus). The atom can either be a stable isotope or a radioactive isotope.

isotopic abundance (mole fraction or amount fraction) – the amount (symbol n) of a given
isotope (atom) in a sample divided by the total amount of all stable and long-lived radioactive
isotopes of the chemical element in the sample. [return]

isotope-amount ratio (r) – amount (symbol n) of an isotope divided by the amount of another
isotope of the chemical element in the same system [706]. [return]
isotopic composition – term indicating that qualitative or generalized, non-numerical isotopic
information has been gathered. Although this is not an SI quantity, this term often is followed by
SI-quantity values [706]. [return]

isotopic fractionation (stable-isotope fractionation) – preferential enrichment of one isotope

of an element over another, owing to slight variations in their physical, chemical, or biological
properties [706]. [return]

neutron – an elementary particle with no net charge and a rest mass of about 1.675 × 10–27 kg,
slightly more than that of the proton. All atoms contain neutrons in their nucleus except for
protium (1H).

proton – an elementary particle having a rest mass of about 1.673 × 10–27 kg, slightly less than
that of a neutron, and a positive electric charge equal and opposite to that of the electron. The
number of protons in the nucleus of an atom is the atomic number.

radioactive decay – the process by which unstable (or radioactive) isotopes lose energy by
emitting alpha particles (helium nuclei), beta particles (positive or negative electrons), gamma
radiation, neutrons or protons to reach a final stable energy state.

radioactive isotope (radioisotope) – an atom for which radioactive decay has been
experimentally measured (also see half-life).

stable isotope – an atom for which no radioactive decay has ever been experimentally measured.

tracer - substance used for tracking purposes. [return]

X-rays – electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength ranging from 0.01 to 10 nanometers—

shorter than those of UV rays and typically longer than those of gamma rays.


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