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Techniques & Tools Mass Spectrometry

What’s New in Mass Spec?

Up in the clouds 

This week, I read a piece in Nature about an interesting facility in San Francisco; Emerald Cloud Lab is a biotech company with a bold mission: to give scientists remote access to robot-operated machines for a range of wet-lab experiments. Incredibly, hundreds of machines are available in this facility with just a couple of human technicians running the show. 

How? The experiments are written into code. “At the end of the day, there’s no ambiguity in this text, I can push a button and reproduce it,” said founder Brian Frezza. They even go as far as saying it’s like streaming your favorite shows on Netflix: ”Just as users of those services pay for access to a virtual library of digital content without ever purchasing a song or television episode, ECL and other cloud labs provide access to a vast warehouse of equipment without having to invest any capital.”

There are clear and exciting benefits to this sort of facility, such as reproducibility, and providing wider access to expensive instruments that otherwise might be unattainable. The founders argue this could help democratize science, adding “it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are. You’re all using the same laboratory. That’s a huge thing.”

In other news, the full program for IMSC 2022 has been released, so you can start planning which sessions you’ll be attending at the end of August! 

Dry your eyes

You want a non-invasive technique for measuring disease biomarkers in tear fluid? You got it. Shruti and Ashok Sharma, scientists at the Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine, Georgia, have managed to combine a “Schirmer strip” (special tissue paper), a specific protein digestion method, and high-resolution MS (specifically HCD) to extract a detailed protein profile of a patient from just a few microliters of tear fluid. The key hurdle they’ve overcome is proving that enough fluid can be collected from this sampling method to analyze a sufficient number of proteins. Their hope is that this could form the basis of a routine diagnostic test for various diseases, from dry eye to Alzheimer’s.

More talk, less PFAS

We all know the importance of communication. But now it would appear that better communication could hold the key to improved identification of the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. How? Joe Charbonnet, a researcher at Iowa State University, has come up with a confidence scale featuring characteristics specific to PFAS identification, which he hopes will enable a more reliable and harmonized process for analyzing and reporting these substances in the environment. 

Putting COVID on a diet

It turns out SARS-CoV-2 loves fat. Like, a lot. Based on observations that some people with a higher body-mass index were more sensitive to COVID-19, researchers from Oregon Health & Science University and the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory decided to use nontargeted lipidomics to look a little closer at how the virus alters lipid levels in cells. What they saw was a massive shift, with some fats increasing 64-fold. Further research revealed the virus completely takes over the fat-processing system in the body. Based on this discovery, the team decided to put the virus on a diet – pumping it with weight-loss drugs (small-molecule glycerolipid biosynthesis inhibitors) to cut off its fuel supply and stop it replicating. Crucially, the authors found this inhibition works across the main variants of concern, meaning this approach could continue to work as the virus evolves.

Combatting hunger

Talking of diets, have researchers just discovered the latest, greatest diet pill? Perhaps. Jonathan Long and his team published a study showing that exercise induces the production of Lac-Phe – an “anti-hunger” molecule that appears to suppress appetite post-exercise (at least in mice). Using MS, the team studied how the metabolome shifted and changed during exercise, and eventually honed in on one peak in particular with a mass of 236. Thanks to some collaborative work with a team at Stanford University, they were able to decipher that this molecule was a combination of lactate and phenylalanine. They even went further and fed this molecule to obese mice, finding that their food intake dropped by about 30 percent. The next steps are to elucidate the mechanism behind this activity.

A breath of exhaled air 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have garnered a lot of attention for their potential use in the non-invasive monitoring and diagnosis of certain diseases in the exhaled breath samples of patients. Now, researchers have looked into selected ion flow tube MS (SIFT-MS) as a method for analyzing VOCs in the breath of chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients. Overall, they found that a breath TMA concentration of 26 ppbv conferred a 6.11 times greater risk of CKD, and that CKD patients had higher levels of acetone and ammonia in their breath. The hope is that this technique could make its way into clinical practice and enable easier monitoring of CKD patients.

Also in the News… 


Proteome analysis of 79 AD Pompeii bones is first of its kind, aiding future development of forensic bone proteomics. Link

Single-cell ICP-MS method allows precise quantification of histadine-tagged protein in E.coli. Link

Climate change could alter omega-3 fatty acid content of plankton, with knock-on effects for the global food chain. Link  

New MS-based atlas of the mouse proteome provides data on the expression of more than 17,000 genes, thousands of isoforms, and 50,000 phosphorylation sites. Link

Neil Kelleher et al reflect on the current and future applications of the native MS toolkit. Link  

Nested polymerase chain reaction coupled with LC-MS enables improved wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 variants for early warning. Link

3D OrbisSIMS instrument requires less sample, allows study of cell-to-cell variance in metabolic signature of macrophages. Link  


New coated blade spray MS method enables screening of drugs of abuse using both positive and negative modes in one analytical run. Link 

Neural network tool, MSNovelist, generates small molecule structures de novo from tandem MS spectra. Link 

Improving on the design of an integrated microfluidic probe for nano-DESI MSI enables high-throughput imaging of tissue sections. Link

ESI-MS workflow “supercharging” reagents reduce mass range, narrow charge-state distribution, and increase sensitivity, enabling improved analysis of monoclonal antibodies and antibody-drug conjugates. Link

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About the Author
Lauren Robertson

By the time I finished my degree in Microbiology I had come to one conclusion – I did not want to work in a lab. Instead, I decided to move to the south of Spain to teach English. After two brilliant years, I realized that I missed science, and what I really enjoyed was communicating scientific ideas – whether that be to four-year-olds or mature professionals. On returning to England I landed a role in science writing and found it combined my passions perfectly. Now at Texere, I get to hone these skills every day by writing about the latest research in an exciting, creative way.

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