Radioactivity in the life sciences

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Radioactivity is generally used in life sciences for highly sensitive and direct measurements of biological phenomena, and for visualizing the location of biomolecules radiolabelled with a radioisotope.

Biomolecule molecule that is produced by a living organism

A biomolecule or biological molecule is a loosely used term for molecules and ions that are present in organisms, essential to some typically biological process such as cell division, morphogenesis, or development. Biomolecules include large macromolecules such as proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids, as well as small molecules such as primary metabolites, secondary metabolites, and natural products. A more general name for this class of material is biological materials. Biomolecules are usually endogenous but may also be exogenous. For example, pharmaceutical drugs may be natural products or semisynthetic (biopharmaceuticals) or they may be totally synthetic.


All atoms exist as stable or unstable isotopes and the latter decay at a given half-life ranging from attoseconds to billions of years; radioisotopes useful to biological and experimental systems have half-lives ranging from minutes to months. In the case of the hydrogen isotope tritium (half-life = 12.3 years) and carbon-14 (half-life = 5,730 years), these isotopes derive their importance from all organic life containing hydrogen and carbon and therefore can be used to study countless living processes, reactions, and phenomena. Most short lived isotopes are produced in cyclotrons, linear particle accelerators, or nuclear reactors and their relatively short half-lives give them high maximum theoretical specific activities which is useful for detection in biological systems.

Isotope nuclides having the same atomic number but different mass numbers

Isotopes are variants of a particular chemical element which differ in neutron number, and consequently in nucleon number. All isotopes of a given element have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons in each atom.

Half-life is the time required for a quantity to reduce to half its initial value. The term is commonly used in nuclear physics to describe how quickly unstable atoms undergo, or how long stable atoms survive, radioactive decay. The term is also used more generally to characterize any type of exponential or non-exponential decay. For example, the medical sciences refer to the biological half-life of drugs and other chemicals in the human body. The converse of half-life is doubling time.

Tritium isotope of hydrogen with 2 neutrons

Tritium or hydrogen-3 is a rare and radioactive isotope of hydrogen, with symbol T or 3H. The nucleus of tritium contains one proton and two neutrons, whereas the nucleus of the common isotope hydrogen-1 ("protium") contains just one proton, and that of hydrogen-2 ("deuterium") contains one proton and one neutron.

DOTA linked to the monoclonal antibody tacatuzumab and chelating yttrium-90 Y-90 tacatuzumab tetraxetan structure.svg
DOTA linked to the monoclonal antibody tacatuzumab and chelating yttrium-90
Whole-body PET scan using F-FDG showing intestinal tumors and non-specific accumulation in bladder PET-MIPS-anim.gif
Whole-body PET scan using F-FDG showing intestinal tumors and non-specific accumulation in bladder

Radiolabeling is a technique used to track the passage of a molecule that incorporates a radioisotope through a reaction, metabolic pathway, cell, tissue, organism, or biological system. The reactant is 'labeled' by replacing specific atoms by their isotope. Replacing an atom with its own radioisotope is an intrinsic label that does not alter the structure of the molecule. Alternatively, molecules can be radiolabeled by chemical reactions that introduce an atom, moiety, or functional group that contains a radionuclide. For example, radio-iodination of peptides and proteins with biologically useful iodine isotopes is easily done by an oxidation reaction that replaces the hydroxyl group with iodine on tyrosine and histadine residues. Another example is to use chelators such DOTA that can be chemically coupled to a protein; the chelator in turn traps radiometals thus radiolabeling the protein. This has been used for introducing Yttrium-90 onto a monoclonal antibody for therapeutic purposes and for introducing Gallium-68 onto the peptide Octreotide for diagnostic imaging by PET imaging. [1] (See DOTA uses.)

Isotopic labeling is a technique used to track the passage of an isotope through a reaction, metabolic pathway, or cell. The reactant is 'labeled' by replacing specific atoms by their isotope. The reactant is then allowed to undergo the reaction. The position of the isotopes in the products is measured to determine the sequence the isotopic atom followed in the reaction or the cell's metabolic pathway. The nuclides used in isotopic labeling may be stable nuclides or radionuclides. In the latter case, the labeling is called radiolabeling.

In science and engineering, an intrinsic property is a property of a specified subject that exists itself or within the subject. An extrinsic property is not essential or inherent to the subject that is being characterized. For example, density is an intrinsic property of any physical object, whereas weight is an extrinsic property that depends on another object.

Moiety (chemistry) (in physical organic chemistry) part of a molecule (the term should not be used for a small fragment of a molecule)

In organic chemistry, a moiety is a part of a molecule which is typically given a name as it can be found within other kinds of molecules as well.

Radiolabeling is not necessary for some applications. For some purposes, soluble ionic salts can be used directly without further modification (e.g., gallium-67, gallium-68, and radioiodine isotopes). These uses rely on the chemical and biological properties of the radioisotope itself, to localize it within the organism or biological system.

Molecular imaging is the biomedical field that employs radiotracers to visualize and quantify biological processes using positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging. Again, a key feature of using radioactivity in life science applications is that it is a quantitative technique, so PET/SPECT not only reveals where a radiolableled molecule is but how much is there.

Molecular imaging

Molecular imaging originated from the field of radiopharmacology due to the need to better understand fundamental molecular pathways inside organisms in a noninvasive manner.

Positron emission tomography medicine imaging technique

Positron-emission tomography (PET) is a nuclear medicine functional imaging technique that is used to observe metabolic processes in the body as an aid to the diagnosis of disease. The system detects pairs of gamma rays emitted indirectly by a positron-emitting radioligand, most commonly fluorine-18, which is introduced into the body on a biologically active molecule called a radioactive tracer. Different ligands are used for different imaging purposes, depending on what the radiologist/researcher wants to detect. Three-dimensional images of tracer concentration within the body are then constructed by computer analysis. In modern PET-CT scanners, three-dimensional imaging is often accomplished with the aid of a CT X-ray scan performed on the patient during the same session, in the same machine.

Single-photon emission computed tomography nuclear medicine tomographic imaging technique

Single-photon emission computed tomography is a nuclear medicine tomographic imaging technique using gamma rays. It is very similar to conventional nuclear medicine planar imaging using a gamma camera. but is able to provide true 3D information. This information is typically presented as cross-sectional slices through the patient, but can be freely reformatted or manipulated as required.

Radiobiology (also known as radiation biology) is a field of clinical and basic medical sciences that involves the study of the action of radioactivity on biological systems. The controlled action of deleterious radioactivity on living systems is the basis of radiation therapy.

Radiobiology is a field of clinical and basic medical sciences that involves the study of the action of ionizing radiation on living things, especially health effects of radiation. Ionizing radiation is generally harmful and potentially lethal to living things but can have health benefits in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer and thyrotoxicosis. Its most common impact is the induction of cancer with a latent period of years or decades after exposure. High doses can cause visually dramatic radiation burns, and/or rapid fatality through acute radiation syndrome. Controlled doses are used for medical imaging and radiotherapy.

Radiation therapy therapy using ionizing radiation

Radiation therapy or radiotherapy, often abbreviated RT, RTx, or XRT, is therapy using ionizing radiation, generally as part of cancer treatment to control or kill malignant cells and normally delivered by a linear accelerator. Radiation therapy may be curative in a number of types of cancer if they are localized to one area of the body. It may also be used as part of adjuvant therapy, to prevent tumor recurrence after surgery to remove a primary malignant tumor. Radiation therapy is synergistic with chemotherapy, and has been used before, during, and after chemotherapy in susceptible cancers. The subspecialty of oncology concerned with radiotherapy is called radiation oncology.

Examples of biologically useful radionuclei


Tritium (Hydrogen-3) is a very low beta energy emitter that can be used to label proteins, nucleic acids, drugs and almost any organic biomolecule. The maximum theoretical specific activity of tritium is 28.8 Ci/mmol (1.066 PBq/mol). [2] However, there is often more than one tritium atom per molecule: for example, tritiated UTP is sold by most suppliers with carbons 5 and 6 each bonded to a tritium atom.

For tritium detection, liquid scintillation counters have been classically employed, in which the energy of a tritium decay is transferred to a scintillant molecule in solution which in turn gives off photons whose intensity and spectrum can be measured by a photomultiplier array. The efficiency of this process is 4–50%, depending on the scintillation cocktail used. [3] [4] The measurements are typically expressed in counts per minute (CPM) or disintegrations per minute (DPM). Alternatively, a solid-state, tritium-specific phosphor screen can be used together with a phosphorimager to measure and simultaneously image the radiotracer. [5] Measurements/images are digital in nature and can be expressed in intensity or densitometry units within a region of interest (ROI).


Carbon-14 has a long half-life of 5,730±40 years. Its maximum specific activity is 0.0624 Ci/mmol (2.31 TBq/mol). It is used in applications such as radiometric dating or drug tests. [6] C-14 labeling is common in drug development to do ADME (absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion) studies in animal models and in human toxicology and clinical trials. Since tritium exchange may occur in some radiolabeled compounds, this does not happen with C-14 and may thus be preferred.


Sodium-22 and chlorine-36 are commonly used to study ion transporters. However, sodium-22 is hard to screen off and chlorine-36, with a half-life of 300,000 years, has low activity. [7]


Sulfur-35 is used to label proteins and nucleic acids. Cysteine is an amino acid containing a thiol group which can be labeled by S-35. For nucleotides that do not contain a sulfur group, the oxygen on one of the phosphate groups can be substituted with a sulfur. This thiophosphate acts the same as a normal phosphate group, although there is a slight bias against it by most polymerases. The maximum theoretical specific activity is 1,494 Ci/mmol (55.28 PBq/mol).


Phosphorus-33 is used to label nucleotides. It is less energetic than P-32 and does not require protection with plexi glass. A disadvantage is its higher cost compared to P-32, as most of the bombarded P-31 will have acquired only one neutron, while only some will have acquired two or more. Its maximum specific activity is 5,118 Ci/mmol (189.4 PBq/mol).

Phosphorus-32 is widely used for labeling nucleic acids and phosphoproteins. It has the highest emission energy (1.7 MeV) of all common research radioisotopes. This is a major advantage in experiments for which sensitivity is a primary consideration, such as titrations of very strong interactions (i.e., very low dissociation constant), footprinting experiments, and detection of low-abundance phosphorylated species. 32P is also relatively inexpensive. Because of its high energy, however, its safe use requires a number of engineering controls (e.g., acrylic glass) and administrative controls. The half-life of 32P is 14.2 days, and its maximum specific activity is 9131 Ci/mmol.


Iodine-125 is commonly used for labeling proteins, usually at tyrosine residues. Unbound iodine is volatile and must be handled in a fume hood. Its maximum specific activity is 2,176 Ci/mmol (80.51 PBq/mol).

A good example of the difference in energy of the various radionuclei is the detection window ranges used to detect them, which are generally proportional to the energy of the emission, but vary from machine to machine: in a Perkin elmer TriLux Beta scintillation counter , the H-3 energy range window is between channel 5–360; C-14, S-35 and P-33 are in the window of 361–660; and P-32 is in the window of 661–1024.[ citation needed ]


Autoradiograph of a coronal brain tissue slice, with a radiolabeled GAD67 probe. Most intense signal is seen in subventricular zone. Autoradiography of a brain slice from an embryonal rat - PMID19190758 PLoS 0004371.png
Autoradiograph of a coronal brain tissue slice, with a radiolabeled GAD67 probe. Most intense signal is seen in subventricular zone.
Autoradiograph of Southern blot membrane Southern-Blot-Autoradiogramm.jpg
Autoradiograph of Southern blot membrane


In liquid scintillation counting, a small aliquot, filter or swab is added to scintillation fluid and the plate or vial is placed in a scintillation counter to measure the radioactive emissions. Manufacturers have incorporated solid scintillants into multi-well plates to eliminate the need for scintillation fluid and make this into a high-throughput technique.

A gamma counter is similar in format to scintillation counting but it detects gamma emissions directly and does not require a scintillant.

A Geiger counter is a quick and rough approximation of activity. Lower energy emitters such as tritium can not be detected.

Qualitative AND Quantitative

Autoradiography: A tissue section affixed to a microscope slide or a membrane such as a Northern blot or a hybridized slot blot can be placed against x-ray film or phosphor screens to acquire a photographic or digital image. The density of exposure, if calibrated, can supply exacting quantitative information.

Phosphor storage screen: The slide or membrane is placed against a phosphor screen which is then scanned in a phosphorimager. This is many times faster than film/emulsion techniques and outputs data in a digital form, thus it has largely replaced film/emulsion techniques.


Electron microscopy: The sample is not exposed to a beam of electrons but detectors picks up the expelled electrons from the radionuclei.

Micro-autoradiography: A tissue section, typically cryosectioned, is placed against a phosphor screen as above.

Quantitative Whole Body Autoradiography (QWBA): Larger than micro-autoradiography, whole animals, typically rodents, can be analyzed for biodistribution studies.

Scientific methods

Schild regression is a radioligand binding assay. It is used for DNA labelling (5' and 3'), leaving the nucleic acids intact.

Radioactivity concentration

A vial of radiolabel has a "total activity". Taking as an example γ32P ATP, from the catalogues of the two major suppliers, Perkin Elmer NEG502H500UC or GE AA0068-500UCI, in this case, the total activity is 500 μCi (other typical numbers are 250 μCi or 1 mCi). This is contained in a certain volume, depending on the radioactive concentration, such as 5 to 10 mCi/mL (185 to 370 TBq/m3); typical volumes include 50 or 25 μL.

Not all molecules in the solution have a P-32 on the last (i.e., gamma) phosphate: the "specific activity" gives the radioactivity concentration and depends on the radionuclei's half-life. If every molecule were labelled, the maximum theoretical specific activity is obtained that for P-32 is 9131 Ci/mmol. Due to pre-calibration and efficiency issues this number is never seen on a label; the values often found are 800, 3000 and 6000 Ci/mmol. With this number it is possible to calculate the total chemical concentration and the hot-to-cold ratio.

"Calibration date" is the date in which the vial’s activity is the same as on the label. "Pre-calibration" is when the activity is calibrated in a future date to compensate for the decay occurred during shipping.

Comparison with fluorescence

Prior to the widespread use of fluorescence in the past three decades radioactivity was the most common label.

The primary advantage of fluorescence over radiotracers is that it does not require radiological controls and their associated expenses and safety measures. The decay of radioisotopes may limit the shelf life of a reagent, requiring its replacement and thus increasing expenses. Several fluorescent molecules can be used simultaneously (given that they do not overlap, cf. FRET), whereas with radioactivity two isotopes can be used (tritium and a low energy isotope, e.g. 33P due to different intensities) but require special equipment (a tritium screen and a regular phosphor-imaging screen, a specific dual channel detector, e.g. ).

Fluorescence is not necessary easier or more convenient to use because fluorescence requires specialized equipment of its own and because quenching makes absolute and/or reproducible quantification difficult.

The primary disadvantage of fluorescence versus radiotracers is a significant biological problem: chemically tagging a molecule with a fluorescent dye radically changes the structure of the molecule, which in turn can radically change the way that molecule interacts with other molecules. In contrast, intrinsic radiolabeling of a molecule can be done without altering its structure in any way. For example, substituting a H-3 for a hydrogen atom or C-14 for a carbon atom does not change the conformation, structure, or any other property of the molecule, it's just switching forms of the same atom. Thus an intrinscially radiolabeled molecule is identical to its unlabeled counterpart.

Measurement of biological phenomona by radiotracers is always direct. In contrast, many life science fluorescence applications are indirect, consisting of a fluorescent dye increasing, decreasing, or shifting in wavelength emission upon binding to the molecule of interest.


If good health physics controls are maintained in a laboratory where radionuclides are used, it is unlikely that the overall radiation dose received by workers will be of much significance. Nevertheless, the effects of low doses are mostly unknown so many regulations exist to avoid unnecessary risks, such as skin or internal exposure. Due to the low penetration power and many variables involved it is hard to convert a radioactive concentration to a dose. 1 μCi of P-32 on a square centimetre of skin (through a dead layer of a thickness of 70 μm) gives 7961 rads (79.61 grays) per hour . Similarly a mammogram gives an exposure of 300 mrem (3 mSv) on a larger volume (in the US, the average annual dose is 620 mrem or 6.2 mSv [8] ).

See also

Related Research Articles

Beta particle ionizing radiation

A beta particle, also called beta ray or beta radiation, is a high-energy, high-speed electron or positron emitted by the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus during the process of beta decay. There are two forms of beta decay, β decay and β+ decay, which produce electrons and positrons respectively.

Nuclear chemistry is the subfield of chemistry dealing with radioactivity, nuclear processes, such as nuclear transmutation, and nuclear properties.

A radioactive tracer, radiotracer, or radioactive label, is a chemical compound in which one or more atoms have been replaced by a radionuclide so by virtue of its radioactive decay it can be used to explore the mechanism of chemical reactions by tracing the path that the radioisotope follows from reactants to products. Radiolabeling or radiotracing is thus the radioactive form of isotopic labeling.

Nuclear fission product product of nuclear fission

Nuclear fission products are the atomic fragments left after a large atomic nucleus undergoes nuclear fission. Typically, a large nucleus like that of uranium fissions by splitting into two smaller nuclei, along with a few neutrons, the release of heat energy, and gamma rays. The two smaller nuclei are the fission products..

Liquid scintillation counting is the measurement of activity of a sample of radioactive material which uses the technique of mixing the active material with a liquid scintillator, and counting the resultant photon emissions. The purpose is to allow more efficient counting due to the intimate contact of the activity with the scintillator. It is generally used for alpha and beta particle detection.

Phosphorus-32 is a radioactive isotope of phosphorus. The nucleus of phosphorus-32 contains 15 protons and 17 neutrons, one more neutron than the most common isotope of phosphorus, phosphorus-31. Phosphorus-32 only exists in small quantities on Earth as it has a short half-life of 14.29 days and so decays rapidly.

A radioimmunoassay (RIA) is an immunoassay that uses radiolabeled molecules in a stepwise formation of immune complexes. A RIA is a very sensitive in vitro assay technique used to measure concentrations of substances, usually measuring antigen concentrations by use of antibodies.

Radiochemistry is the chemistry of radioactive materials, where radioactive isotopes of elements are used to study the properties and chemical reactions of non-radioactive isotopes. Much of radiochemistry deals with the use of radioactivity to study ordinary chemical reactions. This is very different from radiation chemistry where the radiation levels are kept too low to influence the chemistry.


Radioluminescence is the phenomenon by which light is produced in a material by bombardment with ionizing radiation such as alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays. Radioluminescence is used as a low level light source for night illumination of instruments or signage. Radioluminescent paint used to be used for clock hands and instrument dials, enabling them to be read in the dark. Radioluminescence is also sometimes seen around high-power radiation sources, such as nuclear reactors and radioisotopes.

Luminous paint

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Iodine-125 (125I) is a radioisotope of iodine which has uses in biological assays, nuclear medicine imaging and in radiation therapy as brachytherapy to treat a number of conditions, including prostate cancer, uveal melanomas, and brain tumors. It is the second longest-lived radioisotope of iodine, after iodine-129.

Krypton-85 (85Kr) is a radioisotope of krypton.

Environmental radioactivity is produced by radioactive materials in the human environment. While some radioisotopes, such as strontium-90 (90Sr) and technetium-99 (99Tc), are only found on Earth as a result of human activity, and some, like potassium-40 (40K), are only present due to natural processes, a few isotopes, e.g. tritium (3H), result from both natural processes and human activities. The concentration and location of some natural isotopes, particularly uranium-238 (238U), can be affected by human activity.

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Fluorescence is used in the life sciences generally as a non-destructive way of tracking or analysing biological molecules by means of fluorescence. Some proteins or small molecules in cells are naturally fluorescent, which is called intrinsic fluorescence or autofluorescence. Alternatively, specific or general proteins, nucleic acids, lipids or small molecules can be "labelled" with an extrinsic fluorophore, a fluorescent dye which can be a small molecule, protein or quantum dot. Several techniques exist to exploit additional properties of fluorophores, such as fluorescence resonance energy transfer, where the energy is passed non-radiatively to a particular neighbouring dye, allowing proximity or protein activation to be detected; another is the change in properties, such as intensity, of certain dyes depending on their environment allowing their use in structural studies.

Brain positron emission tomography

Brain positron emission tomography is a form of positron emission tomography (PET) that is used to measure brain metabolism and the distribution of exogenous radiolabeled chemical agents throughout the brain. PET measures emissions from radioactively labeled metabolically active chemicals that have been injected into the bloodstream. The emission data from brain PET are computer-processed to produce multi-dimensional images of the distribution of the chemicals throughout the brain.

Radiopharmaceutical pharmaceutical drug which emits radiation, used as a diagnostic or therapeutic agent

Radiopharmaceuticals, or medicinal radiocompounds, are a group of pharmaceutical drugs which have radioactivity. Radiopharmaceuticals can be used as diagnostic and therapeutic agents. Radiopharmaceuticals emit radiation themselves, which is different from contrast media which absorb or alter external electromagnetism or ultrasound. Radiopharmacology is the branch of pharmacology that specializes in these agents.


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