Stable isotope tracers have been invaluable assets in physiological research for over 80 years. The application of substrate-specific stable isotope tracers has permitted exquisite insight into amino acid, fatty-acid and carbohydrate metabolic regulation (i.e. incorporation, flux, and oxidation, in a tissue-specific and whole-body fashion) in health, disease and response to acute and chronic exercise. Yet, despite many breakthroughs, there are limitations to ‘substrate-specific’ stable isotope tracers, which limit physiological insight, e.g. the need for intravenous infusions and restriction to short-term studies (hours) in controlled laboratory settings. In recent years significant interest has developed in alternative stable isotope tracer techniques that overcome these limitations, in particular deuterium oxide (D2O or heavy water). The unique properties of this tracer mean that through oral administration, the turnover and flux through a number of different substrates (muscle proteins, lipids, glucose, DNA (satellite cells)) can be monitored simultaneously and flexibly (hours/weeks/months) without the need for restrictive experimental control. This makes it uniquely suited for the study of ‘real world’ human exercise physiology (amongst many other applications). Moreover, using D2O permits evaluation of turnover of plasma and muscle proteins (e.g. dynamic proteomics) in addition to metabolomics (e.g. fluxomics) to seek molecular underpinnings, e.g. of exercise adaptation. Here, we provide insight into the role of stable isotope tracers, from substrate-specific to novel D2O approaches, in facilitating our understanding of metabolism. Further novel potential applications of stable isotope tracers are also discussed in the context of integration with the snowballing field of ‘omic’ technologies.
Contemporary stable isotope approaches coupled to mass spectrometry can now provide synchronous insights into the dynamics of acute and chronic metabolism (e.g. protein, nucleic acid, energy production and storage, and metabolic pathway flux) in the contexts of end-points relating to the physiological, clinical, performance and health benefits of exercise.