Tracers to investigate protein and amino acid metabolism in human subjects.

A.J.M. Wagenmakers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Department of Human Biology, NUTRIM, Maastricht University, The Netherlands. A.Wagenmakers@HB.Unimaas.NL

Three tracer methods have been used to measure protein synthesis, protein breakdown and protein oxidation at whole-body level. The method using L-[1-(13)C]leucine is considered the method of reference. These methods have contributed greatly to the existing knowledge on whole-body protein turnover and its regulation by feeding, fasting, hormones and disease. How exercise and ingestion of mixed protein-containing meals affect whole-body protein metabolism is still open to debate, as there are discrepancies in results obtained with different tracers. The contribution of whole-body methods to the future gain of knowledge is expected to be limited due to the fact that most physiological disturbances have been investigated extensively, and due to the lack of information on the relative contribution of various tissues and proteins to whole-body changes. Tracer amino acid-incorporation methods are most suited to investigate these latter aspects of protein metabolism. These methods have shown that some tissues (liver and gut) have much higher turnover rates and deposit much more protein than others (muscle). Massive differences also exist between the fractional synthesis rates of individual proteins. The incorporation methods have been properly validated, although minor disagreements remain on the identity of the true precursor pool (the enrichment of which should be used in the calculations). Arterio-venous organ balance studies have shown that little protein is deposited in skeletal muscle following a protein-containing meal, while much more protein is deposited in liver and gut. The amount deposited in the feeding period in each of these tissues is released again during overnight fasting. The addition of tracers to organ balance studies allows the simultaneous estimation of protein synthesis and protein breakdown, and provides information on whether changes in net protein balance are caused primarily by a change in protein synthesis or in protein breakdown. In the case of a small arterio-venous difference in a tissue with a high blood flow, estimates of protein synthesis and breakdown become very uncertain, limiting the value of using the tracer. An additional measurement of the intracellular free amino acid pool enrichment allows a correction for amino acid recycling and quantification of the inward and outward transmembrane transport. However, in order to obtain reliable estimates of the intramuscular amino acid enrichment and, therefore, of muscle protein synthesis and breakdown in this so-called three-pool model, the muscle should be freeze-dried and the resulting fibres should be freed from connective tissue and small blood clots under a dissection microscope. Even when optimal precautions are taken, the calculations in these tracer balance methods use multiple variables and, therefore, are bound to lead to more variability in estimates of protein synthesis than the tracer amino acid incorporation methods. In the future, most studies should focus on the measurement of protein synthesis and breakdown in specific proteins in order to understand the mechanisms behind tissue adaptation in response to various stimuli (feeding, fasting, exercise, trauma, sepsis, disuse and disease). The tracer laboratories, therefore, should improve the methodology to allow the measurement of low tracer amino acid enrichments in small amounts of protein.

Publication Types:
Review, Tutorial
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)987-1000
Number of pages14
JournalProceedings of the Nutrition Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1999

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