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Organic matter (OM) tracing is critical for understanding the processes of soil redistribution and global carbon cycling. It effectively supports ecological management and global climate change prediction. Stable isotopes are generally more source-specific compared with other tracers and identify OM sources with a higher level of accuracy. Nevertheless, stable isotopes may be enriched or depleted by physical and biochemical processes such as selective migration of particles and OM mineralization in transport and sedimentary environments, making it difficult to establish links between the source and sink regions. Literature on OM source identification tends to assume a direct link between stable isotope sources and sinks, ignoring the non-conservatism of stable isotopes. There is further literature on understanding and modeling the processes that link the sources to sinks in terms of the non-conservatism of stable isotopes. The disagreement in response to the non-conservatism lies in the lack of comprehensive understanding of stable isotope fingerprinting systems and non-conservatism. The development of stable isotope fingerprinting technology is full of challenges. This review outlines the applicability of stable isotope tracers, identification mechanisms, and associated quantitative models, intending to improve the stable isotope fingerprinting system. We highlight the non-conservatism of stable isotopes in space and time caused by physical and biochemical processes. Additionally, a decision tree is established to determine the quantitative tools, evaluation indicators, and procedures related to non-conservatism. This decision tree clarifies the process from non-conservatism detection to threshold determination of statistical quantification, which can guide the end-users to better apply stable isotope to trace OM sources. Copyright © 2022 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Zhongwu Li, Shilan Wang, Xiaodong Nie, Yize Sun, Fengwei Ran. The application and potential non-conservatism of stable isotopes in organic matter source tracing. The Science of the total environment. 2022 Sep 10;838(Pt 1):155946

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PMID: 35569649

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