Metabolomics: its Applications in Food and Nutrition Research
Reporter and Curator: Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.
Metabolomics is a relatively new field of “omics” research concerned with the high-throughput identification and quantification of small molecule (<1500 Da) metabolites in the metabolome. The metabolome is formally defined as the collection of all small molecule metabolites or chemicals that can be found in a cell, organ or organism. These small molecules can include a range of endogenous and exogenous chemical entities such as peptides, amino acids, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, organic acids, vitamins, polyphenols, alkaloids, minerals and just about any other chemical that can be used, ingested or synthesized by a given cell or organism.
Metabolomics is ideally positioned to be used in many areas of food science and nutrition research including food component analysis, food quality/authenticity assessment, food consumption monitoring and physiological monitoring in food intervention studies. However, the potential impact of metabolomics is still limited by two factors: (1) technology and (2) databases. In terms of instrumentation, it is clear that significant improvements need to be made to make metabolite detection and quantification technology more robust, automated and comprehensive. While promising advances have been made, current techniques are only capable of detecting perhaps 1/10th of the relevant metabolome. This expanded breadth and depth of coverage is particularly important in food and nutrition studies.
Many more reference spectral or chromatographic databases on metabolites, food components and phytochemicals need to be developed and made public. It is only through these databases that nutritionally relevant compounds can be routinely identified or quantified. Indeed a comprehensive effort, similar to that undertaken to annotate the human metabolome, needs to be made to complete and annotate the “food metabolome”. Similar efforts also need to be directed towards creating publicly accessible, comprehensive nutritional phenotype databases that include quantitative metabolomic (and other omic) data collected from diet-challenge or food intervention experiments. While these kinds of endeavours may take years to complete and cost millions of dollars, hopefully the food science community (and its funding agencies) will find a way of coordinating its activities to complete these efforts. Indeed, having public resource like a food metabolome database or a nutritional phenotype database could be as valuable to food scientists as GenBank has been to molecular biologists.
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