New canary in the mine

Metabolomics is getting a name for being the new marker method in determining changes in metabolites in response to internal and external influences.

First published: 22/10/2014

Updated at: 22/10/2014 at 12:39 pm

As the notion of personalised medicine gains pace, metabolomics, the youngest field in the ‘omics’ family, is growing rapidly.

These days, we are monitoring our nutritional intake,  examining our genes and proteins… and now we can also check our metabolites to find biomedical solutions that are specific and cost effective.

Metabolomics is defined as the non-targeted detection and quantification of small molecules (metabolites) in biological materials. Metabolite profiles reflect the actual cellular condition of samples and offer:

  • useful indicators (biomarkers) for disease or health consequences of genetic engineering;
  • biomarkers to test drug compounds or environmental factors;
  • a means of discovering new biomolecules (bioprospecting); and
  • indicators for monitoring food quality.

Business manager for Metabolomics Australia, Zofia Felton said “The revolution of global profiling is upon us as we begin to understand how small molecules are impacted by disease metabolism in cellular function. The new frontier is to look at not just one but all metabolites and their role in disease-oriented research.”

Associate Professor Ute Roessner, Analytical Leader of the Metabolomics Australia said, “Metabolomics is becoming part of every researcher’s toolkit. Young researchers now routinely do metabolomics as part of their PhD.

“It’s such an important field that the recent International Metabolomics Society annual conference in Japan attracted more than 500 registrants.”

Professor David Wishart, in the Departments of Biological Sciences and Computing Science at the University of Alberta describes Metabolomics as the “canary in the mine”.

“The metabolome responds to nutrients, stress, or disease long before the transcriptome or proteome. This makes metabolomics an attractive approach for multiple fields: environmental toxicology, evolution and development, disease diagnosis and treatment response, and the development of drugs, pesticides, and herbicides. Metabolic flux analysis aids synthetic biologists by revealing how genetic changes affect pathways and products,” he said.

Prof Wishart has set up a freely available electronic database for small molecule metabolites found in the human body. (See

Zofia Felton agrees with Prof Wishart. “By studying changes in our metabolites in tissue, blood or urine we can understand what’s happening within our body and how it is reacting to disease, infection or to endogenous influences. It is indeed like the canary in the mine.

“Metabolites in our system are dynamic and respond to changes in the system as well as to introduced influences from drugs, food, additives and phytochemicals, toxins and environmental chemicals.”

“While certain genes might influence or predispose us to certain illnesses, we may not actually ever contract the illness. Metabolites show what’s happening now and in the foreseeable future. They can be the markers for the influence of genetically contracted disease.

“There are many factors at play, our genetics, the environment, the food we eat, our gut microbiome and other such influences. Metabolomics studies can give insight how metabolites change in response to disease, diet, and the environment. In this way Metabolomics can be used to molecularly characterise the wellness within populations.

“Metabolic screening is common place with newborn babies given a pinprick test for congenital metabolic disorders, for example. Extension is the possibility into other biomarker assays for predicting and seeing the progression of diseases such as diabetes or even possibly Alzheimer’s,” Zofia said.

Metabolomics requires reliable sampling and precise capture of thousands of metabolites from the sample of interest.  Utilising a wide variety of complementary analytical platforms is critical for identifying and quantifying the large numbers of chemically diverse primary and secondary metabolites typically found. The use of advanced informatics for data extraction, mining and interpretation are also critical. Metabolomics Australia provides this expertise to take researchers on this journey of discovery and understand the potential of what the discipline can offer.

If you’re a researcher working for an end user organisation from industry or government, you may be eligible for seed funding from Bioplatforms Australia for a collaborative project.

For more information click here or contact Zofia Felton on +61 3 8344 4099.

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