Chin J Plant Ecol ›› 2020, Vol. 44 ›› Issue (4): 384-394.DOI: 10.17521/cjpe.2019.0139

Special Issue: 全球变化与生态系统 生态学研究的技术和方法

• Reviews • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Biomarkers and their applications in ecosystem research

FENG Xiao-Juan1,2,*(),WANG Yi-Yun1,2,LIU Ting1,JIA Juan1,DAI Guo-Hua1,MA Tian1,2,LIU Zong-Guang1   

  1. 1State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100093, China
    2College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • Received:2019-06-06 Accepted:2019-08-22 Online:2020-04-20 Published:2019-10-21
  • Contact: FENG Xiao-Juan ORCID:0000-0002-0443-0628
  • Supported by:
    National Key R&D Program of China(2017YFC0503902);State Key Development Program for Basic Research of China(2015CB954201);Chinese Academy of Sciences Interdisciplinary Project(JCTD-2018-06)


Biomarkers are biogenic organic compounds that carry the chemical structures specific to their biological sources and survive long-term preservation in environmental and geological systems. The abundance of biomarkers may indicate the relative contribution of specific biological sources to the natural organic matter while their chemical and isotopic compositions may also inform on the transformation stage of organic matter and the environmental settings. Compared with conventional bulk analysis, biomarkers offer highly specific and sensitive tools to track the sources, transformation and dynamic changes of natural organic matter components and have therefore been widely used in ecological and biogeochemical studies in the past decades. In particular, combined with ecosystem observations and control experiments, biomarkers have shown great potentials in revealing changes in microbial activity and carbon sources, soil organic matter dynamics, stabilization mechanisms and response to global changes. The recently-developed biomarker-specific isotope analysis also exhibits a great promise in revealing ecosystem carbon and nitrogen turnover and food web structures. This review summarizes several major categories of commonly used biomarkers, their analytical methods, applications in ecosystem studies and existing pitfalls, and discusses future directions of research to provide guidance for biomarker users in ecology and environmental sciences.

Key words: biomarker, ecosystem research, soil organic matter, compound-specific isotope analysis, carbon cycling, food web