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Name, symbol Carbon-13,13C
Neutrons 7
Protons 6
Nuclide data
Natural abundance 1.109%
Isotope mass 13.003355[1] u
Spin 12

Carbon-13 (13C) is a natural, stable isotope of carbon with a nucleus containing six protons and seven neutrons. One of the environmental isotopes, it makes up about 1.1% of all natural carbon on Earth.

Detection by mass spectrometry[edit]

A mass spectrum of an organic compound will usually contain a small peak of one mass unit greater than the apparent molecular ion peak (M) of the whole molecule. This is known as the M+1 peak and comes from the handful of molecules that contain a 13C atom in place of a 12C. A molecule containing one carbon atom will be expected to have an M+1 peak of approximately 1.1% of the size of the M peak, as 1.1% of the molecules will have a 13C rather than a 12C. Similarly, a molecule containing two carbon atoms will be expected to have an M+1 peak of approximately 2.2% of the size of the M peak, as there is double the previous likelihood that any molecule will contain a 13C atom.

In the above, the mathematics and chemistry have been simplified, however it can be used effectively to give the number of carbon atoms for small- to medium-sized organic molecules. In the following formula the result should be rounded to the nearest integer:

C = number of C atoms X = amplitude of the M ion peak Y = amplitude of the M+1 ion peak

13C-enriched compounds are used in the research of metabolic processes by means of mass spectrometry. Such compounds are safe because they are non-radioactive. In addition, 13C is used to quantify proteins (quantitative proteomics). One important application is in "Stable isotope labeling with amino acids in cell culture" (SILAC). 13C-enriched compounds are used in medical diagnostic tests such as the urea breath test. Analysis in these tests is usually of the ratio of 13C to 12C by isotope ratio mass spectrometry.

The ratio of 13C to 12C is slightly higher in plants employing C4 carbon fixation than in plants employing C3 carbon fixation. Because the different isotope ratios for the two kinds of plants propagate through the food chain, it is possible to determine if the principal diet of a human or other animal consists primarily of C3 plants or C4 plants by measuring the isotopic signature of their collagen and other tissues. Deliberate increase of proportion of 13C in diet is the concept of i-food, a proposed way to increase longevity.

Uses in science[edit]

Due to differential uptake in plants as well as marine carbonates of 13C, it is possible to use these isotopic signatures in earth science. In aqueous geochemistry, by analyzing the δ13C value of surface and ground waters the source of the water can be identified. This is because atmospheric, carbonate, and plant derived δ13C values all differ with respect to Pee Dee Belemnite (PDB) standard. In biology, the ratio of carbon-13 and carbon-12 isotopes in plant tissues is different depending on the type of plant photosynthesis and this can be used, for example, to determine which types of plants were consumed by animals. In geology, the 13C/12C ratio is used to identify the layer in sedimentary rock created at the time of the Permian extinction 252 Mya when the ratio changed abruptly by 1%. More information about usage of 13C/12C ratio in science can be found in the article about isotopic signatures.

Carbon-13 has a non-zero spin quantum number of 1/2, and hence allows the structure of carbon-containing substances to be investigated using carbon-13 nuclear magnetic resonance.

See also[edit]


Carbon-13 is an
isotope of carbon
Decay product of:
boron-13, nitrogen-13
Decay chain
of carbon-13
Decays to: