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Fields & Applications Liquid Chromatography, Mass Spectrometry, Environmental

Blubber Luck

Gray whales may be big…but when it comes to blubber analysis, they provide small sample sizes. And why do we need to analyze whale blubber? With gray whale species hovering dangerously close to the endangered zone, “analysis of steroids from precious blubber biopsies…can provide valuable information on their endocrine status” say the authors of a new paper (1). This could include data on reproductive capabilities and stress levels of the marine mammals – crucial for conservation efforts.

Serum and feces – analyzed in previous research – are less reliably accessible than blubber, but biopsies of blubber are necessarily small (as well as harder to obtain due to dwindling populations). In addition, current methodology such as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), requires the majority of the tissue, making multiple analyses yet more of a challenge.

But thanks to a new combination of analytical techniques, blubber analysis may be about to get easier. A collaborative team from Alaska and Texas used nanoLC to separate the progesterone, testosterone and hydrocortisone from blubber samples, before carrying out nano electrospray ionization (ESI) mass spectrometric analysis. Both detection and quantitation limits were lower than previously obtained using conventional methodology.

NanoLC-MS/MS offers other advantages: “NanoLC uses much lower flow rates [than LC-MS/MS]…and therefore, uses less solvent, making it more cost-effective and consistent with green chemistry principles,” according to the paper. The ability to conduct multiple analyses on small samples can also help provide “a more complete health assessment” – which can only be good news for our gargantuan friends. The researchers intend to include other steroid hormones such as estradiol and glucocorticosteroids in future analyses.

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  1. M Hayden et al., “Nanospray liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometryanalysis of steroids from gray whale blubber”, Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom.31, 1088–1094 (2017).
About the Author
Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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