Learning Outcomes

  • Define the term isotope

Isotopes are different forms of the same element that have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons. Some elements, such as carbon, potassium, and uranium, have naturally occurring isotopes. Carbon-12, the most common isotope of carbon, contains six protons and six neutrons. Therefore, it has a mass number of 12 (six protons and six neutrons) and an atomic number of 6 (which makes it carbon). Carbon-14 contains six protons and eight neutrons. Therefore, it has a mass number of 14 (six protons and eight neutrons) and an atomic number of 6, meaning it is still the element carbon. These two alternate forms of carbon are isotopes. Some isotopes are unstable and will lose protons, other subatomic particles, or energy to form more stable elements. These are called radioactive isotopes or radioisotopes.

Evolution in Action: Carbon Dating

Photograph shows scientists digging pygmy mammoth skeleton fossils from the ground.

Figure 1. The age of remains that contain carbon and are less than about 50,000 years old, such as this pygmy mammoth, can be determined using carbon dating.

Carbon-14 (14C) is a naturally occurring radioisotope that is created in the atmosphere by cosmic rays. This is a continuous process, so more 14C is always being created. As a living organism develops, the relative level of 14C in its body is equal to the concentration of 14C in the atmosphere. When an organism dies, it is no longer ingesting 14C, so the ratio will decline. 14C decays to 14N by a process called beta decay; it gives off energy in this slow process.

After approximately 5,730 years, only one-half of the starting concentration of 14C will have been converted to 14N. The time it takes for half of the original concentration of an isotope to decay to its more stable form is called its half-life. Because the half-life of 14C is long, it is used to age formerly living objects, such as fossils. Using the ratio of the 14C concentration found in an object to the amount of 14C detected in the atmosphere, the amount of the isotope that has not yet decayed can be determined. Based on this amount, the age of the fossil can be calculated to about 50,000 years (Figure 1). Isotopes with longer half-lives, such as potassium-40, are used to calculate the ages of older fossils. Through the use of carbon dating, scientists can reconstruct the ecology and biogeography of organisms living within the past 50,000 years.

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