By Tyler Irving
Posted May 2011
The test results are in, and the news may be shocking: Your blood contains measurable levels of at least 4,229 different naturally occurring chemical entities.
An international group of researchers, headed up since 2005 by David Wishart at the University of Alberta, is driven by a monumentally ambitious goal: To characterize and measure every last molecule that can be found in the human body. The field — called metabolomics — uses a multitude of analytical techniques, from nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy. The analysis of human blood, the results of which were published in late February, is the most recently completed phase of the project. Like the rest of the team, Wishart was surprised at the total number of compounds found.
“Our survey had originally said there were going to be 800,” he says. “We knew there were going to be some lipids, but we didn’t really know how many.” Lipids make up about half of the new total, but Wishart, who is a professor in the departments of biological sciences and computing science, thinks this might be just the tip of the iceberg. “Looking at chemicals, you’re limited by technology. If we had instruments that could detect things down to pico- or femto-molar concentrations, this list of 4,200 would be maybe 42,000.” The list is now kept in the open-access Human Metabolome Database, which Wishart curates. It’s the equivalent of GenBank for gene researchers, or UniProt for proteins. Wishart hopes that it will be a useful tool as scientists begin the long process of unravelling the functions of these compounds. “For the last century we’ve been looking inside our bodies through a keyhole. Now that the technologies exist, we should be able to see through a picture window.”
Photo Credit: David Wishart
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