In the growing field of plant systems biology, there is an undisputed need for methods allowing accurate quantitation of proteins and metabolites. As autotrophic organisms, plants can easily metabolize different nitrogen isotopes, resulting in proteins and metabolites with distinct molecular mass that can be separated on a mass spectrometer. In comparative quantitative experiments, treated and untreated samples are differentially labeled by nitrogen isotopes and jointly processed, thereby minimizing sample-to-sample variation. In recent years, heavy nitrogen labeling has become a widely used strategy in quantitative proteomics and novel approaches have been developed for metabolite identification. Here, we present an overview of currently used experimental strategies in heavy nitrogen labeling in plants and provide background on the history and function of this quantitation technique.
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