The Rise of the Omics: Metabolomics

Last week I was introduced to the world of the omics. These are different fields of study in biology that end in omics such as genomics. As my background is more on animal behavior I have not spent a lot of time on the miniscule parts of an organism like genes and proteins. Nevertheless, a recent seminar by Dr. Ute Roessner, who works with Metabolomics Australia, opened my eyes to metabolomics and its applications, which may be of use in many different research areas.

What are the omics? 

If you’re like me, you may need an intro of the omics. There are many different omics being studied but here are the main ones with their Wikipedia definitions:

  • Genomics – study of the genomes of organisms: other genomic studies are split into the function, transcription, or even relationships of genomes
  • Trancriptomics – study of sets of RNA molecules (transcriptomes)
  • Proteomics – study of the structure and function of large sets of proteins (proteomes)
  • Metabolomics – study of metabolites and their chemical processes
  • Lipidomics – study of lipids including their pathways and cellular networks; this is a very new field that has branched from metabolomics.

Breakdown of different omics and their focus. Click for image source

What are metabolites?

The metabolites, which are the main focus of metabolomics, are small molecules like sugars or amino acids and have many functions. Metabolites are separated as primary or secondary metabolites. A primary metabolite is similar across groups of species and is involved with growth, development, and reproduction. Secondary metabolites are more species-specific and involved in other organism functions. The important factor is that when metabolites are identified they can provide more detailed information about the function and physiological state of organisms. The detection and identification of metabolites is called profiling and is a main focus of metabolomics research.

Metabolomics Approaches

Metabolites have their own kind of chemical fingerprint, but it takes some serious technology to be able to analyze. There are two main parts to the process: target analysis and metabolite profiling. In target analysis the researchers have to select the particular set of compounds and separate them from other compounds. The second part of the process is the actual detection and quantification of a large set of metabolites. There are different methods that can be used to complete these processes, but the first choice is gas chomatography for the target analysis along with mass spectrometry for the profiling (GC-MS). Basically, you can identify different compounds by the point at which they boil and vaporize which is how this method works. The benefits of this method is that, according to Roessner, the process is quite stable, easy to set up and learn, and is cost-effective. Unfortunately, GC-MS does not work with all compounds. Volatile compounds that have a high vapour pressure need to be analyzed with a liquid chromatography system (LC-MS). This is a more comprehensive and tricky method, but it provides a lot more options.

Workflow for metabolite analysis. Click for image source

Applications for Metabolomics

Click for image source

At this point you are probably wondering why anyone would want to go through such complicated methods just to identify small molecules. I assure you it has its uses. One of the best uses of metabolomics is in finding important biological indicators (biomarkers) for cancer, diseases, or other health concerns. Approximately 50% of all drugs are actually derived from metabolites! Additionally, metabolomics can be used to look at toxins and environmental chemicals, and even to monitor food quality. Currently there is research being done in metabolomics to explore the chemical components of grape-juice fermentation and how to make wine (wine-omics). 

Wine-omics. Borneman, Schmidt, & Pretorius, 2013

Although I’m not a wine drinker, I love cheese which is a great compliment to wine and wouldn’t mind if researchers used metabolomics to enhance the flavours in cheese. Stepping aside from the food and drugs though, metabolomics can give us knowledge. We can answer questions about biology, identify differences between species through their metabolic fingerprinting and learn more about how these small molecules function. Regardless of your field, there may come a time in which you may want to send a sample to some metabolomics experts and gain more information about your own work. Now just imagine if we can integrate all of the omics –  what kind of information we could gain!

Further Reading

Although many of my definitions are based off of Wikipedia to make it simple to understand, there are researcher articles with more extensive descriptions.


One thought on “The Rise of the Omics: Metabolomics

  1. Pingback: Omics and privacy? | Medicine Metamorphosis

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