Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Metabolomics and the food fingerprint

I've touched upon the beautiful science of metabolomics previously on a sister blog; that is, looking for 'chemical fingerprints' in various biological fluids to garner further information on underlying biological processes related to health. Already metabolomics has provided us with a few preliminary clues in relation to more behaviourally-led conditions such as autism and schizophrenia (AUC=1), but as the technology gets smarter and smaller (and cheaper), I foresee great things ahead for this flourishing branch of biochemistry similar to the genomic high-throughput screening technology carried out at places like the Sanger Institute.

When a story recently appeared on the BBC website discussing a food 'fingerprints' test, it was therefore always going to attract my attention. Indeed so much so that after a few quick emails to one of the people involved with the research, I was very satisfied to receive some of their peer-reviewed papers on the details behind the headlines. 

The BBC story discusses some collaborative research based on the notion that what we eat leads to the production of various chemical metabolites and that detecting those metabolites in fluids like urine means we can objectively find out what someone has consumed recently and if necessary promote any dietary changes. Food diaries are the normal way of collecting information on what people have eaten recently but recall is often not as accurate as you think.

My take on this work was slightly different in terms of the fact that the researchers are in effect, building up a large bank of information based on very controlled eating habits about what comes out when we eat certain foods. 

This paper by Favé and colleagues* (full-text) sums up the research aims and objectives; also providing a great overview of the various techniques used in metabolomics and importantly the statistical analyses required (normally PCA or some variant). The researchers have been very methodical in their approach to this issue. This paper again by Favé and colleagues** (full-text) details how they went about clearing a few potential interfering variables such as the fasting period and some information on the reproducibility of findings over various testing occasions. In short, they wanted to make sure that interesting collected metabolites were food derived and were consistent.

So what have they got so far?

Well, according to this paper by Lloyd and colleagues*** when compared to a standard breakfast made up of orange juice, tea with skimmed milk and sugar, butter croissant, and cornflakes with milk, an alternative dietary schedule made up of either salmon, broccoli, whole-grain wheat cereal or raspberries produced some notable differences in urinary metabolites. The differences were even more notable when the alternative dietary schedule was compared against fasting urine samples.

Looking more specifically at individual compounds formed as a result of dietary intake, a few interesting snippets were reported including:

  • Smoked salmon intake was associated with increased levels of 1-methylhistidine and anserine (b-alanyl-L-methylhistidine), metabolites of the amino acid histidine, probably derived from fish skeletal muscle. Also alongside were findings of TMAO, a degradation product from carnitine (remember that?).
  • Broccoli and raspberry were both associated with increased ascorbate and individually, xylonate/lyxonate and polyphenols.
  • For each of these three dietary components, there were at least 7 putative biomarkers of intake reported although nothing was reported on for the wholegrain cereal consumption.

Another paper by Lloyd and colleagues**** reported that proline betaine was associated with citrus exposure, with detected levels using the same technology and methods explanatory of both acute and habitual exposure to citrus containing foods (makes it sound like an illicit drug or something).

Appreciating that this and related work is still an emerging area of investigation, subject to all manner of confounders that we as human beings do to ourselves every day, I am suitably impressed that there are groups out there looking at our food and how we metabolise it. I can envisage many applications for this kind of work, ranging from a non-invasive test of recent food consumption, to measuring adherence to certain kinds of dietary intervention, to examining whether there are any differences in the metabolism of certain foods as a function of say gut bacteria which might cast some light on the biology behind lots of conditions.

To finish how about a bit of artistic interpretation through the medium of dance from Kate Bush...

* Favé G. et al. Measurement of dietary exposure: a challenging problem which may be overcome thanks to metabolomics? Genes & Nutrition. 2009; 4: 135-141

** Favé G. et al. Development and validation of a standardized protocol to monitor human dietary exposure by metabolite fingerprinting of urine samples. Metabolomics. 2011; 7: 469-484

*** Lloyd AJ. et al. Use of mass spectrometry fingerprinting to identify urinary metabolites after consumption of specific foods. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2011; 94: 981-91.

**** Lloyd AJ. et al. Proline betaine and its biotransformation products in fasting urine samples are potential biomarkers of habitual citrus fruit consumption. British Journal of Nutrition. 2011; 106: 812-824.

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