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Identification of site-specific isotopic labels by vibrational spectroscopy in the electron microscope

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The identification of isotopic labels by conventional macroscopic techniques lacks spatial resolution and requires relatively large quantities of material for measurements. We recorded the vibrational spectra of an α amino acid, l-alanine, with damage-free “aloof” electron energy-loss spectroscopy in a scanning transmission electron microscope to directly resolve carbon-site–specific isotopic labels in real space with nanoscale spatial resolution. An isotopic red shift of 4.8 ± 0.4 milli–electron volts in C–O asymmetric stretching modes was observed for 13C-labeled l-alanine at the carboxylate carbon site, which was confirmed by macroscopic infrared spectroscopy and theoretical calculations. The accurate measurement of this shift opens the door to nondestructive, site-specific, spatially resolved identification of isotopically labeled molecules with the electron microscope.