Three principles governing the interpretation of biochemical criteria of trace element status are identified; they concern the relationships between the concentration of the marker and the intake of the element, the time on an adequate regimen and disturbances of tissue function. From these principles, the concentrations of liver copper, liver vitamin B12 and ovine serum vitamin B12 are shown to be insensitive indices of deficiency but good indices of surfeit. Plasma copper less than 9 mumol/litre is a good index of marginally deficiency but values may have to fall below 3 mumol/litre before there is risk of dysfunction and loss of production in sheep and cattle. Serum vitamin B12 values below 188 pmol/litre are indicative of functional deficiency in sheep whereas cattle with values between 38 and 76 pmol/litre may be only marginally deficient. Concentrations of methylmalonic acid in the plasma greater than 5 mumol/litre may offer a surer guide to diagnosis of functional vitamin B12 deficiency. Blood selenium or glutathione peroxidase concentrations may be unreliable in diagnosing selenium-responsive conditions because other nutrients determine what is adequate. For all elements the surest diagnosis is an improvement in growth or health in response to a specific supplement. The adoption of preventive measures should be prompted by biochemical evidence of marginal deficiencies in animals (rather than soils or pastures) although economic responses will not necessarily follow.
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