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Metabolomics: understanding metabolism in the 21st Century

An introduction to metabolomics at the University if Birmingham and the course. Watch Professor Mark Viant explain more.
MARK VIANT: Hello my name is Professor Mark Viant from the University of Birmingham in the UK. I’d like to welcome you all to this online course titled, Metabolomics, Understanding Metabolism in the 21st Century. My research team investigates the role of metabolism in biological systems, including humans and animals that live in their natural environment. As part of this research, my team are also developing new technologies in software to enhance how we study metabolism. So in this course, we will introduce you to metabolism and demonstrate why and how do we study metabolism by applying the scientific technique called metabolomics. So just what is metabolomics? It’s the study of the low molecular weight chemicals involved in metabolism.
These low molecular weight chemicals are called metabolites, and they include, for example, carbohydrates, amino acids, fatty acids, and hormones. These metabolites may be present within cells or in the environment surrounding cells and tissues, such as in blood or in urine. The complete collection of metabolites is called the metabolome.
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, we’ve entered a new post-genomic era of biology. So we now have the blueprint of life comprised of DNA called the genome. But this genetic code will not answer all the questions that we have about human disease and environmental health. Instead, we need to measure the combined effect of the genome, lifestyle, and our environment, on how we function. And this results in what we call the phenotype. So metabolomics provides a direct and sensitive measure of the phenotype at the molecular level. As the metabolome is down the stream of a genome, it provides an amplified and dynamic measure of changes resulting from processes involving the genome, transcriptome, proteome, lifestyle, and the environment.
So metabolomics aims to measure all, or at least a large number of, the metabolites present in the cells, tissues, or even whole organisms. Metabolomics is revolutionised by chemical research. For example, in the 20th century, the technologies available to scientists only permitted them to study a small number of metabolites. But nowadays, we have new technologies that enables us to measure metabolism in a non-targeted, or global approach. Metabolomics, and all of the so-called -omics approaches, have really altered our scientific approach from hypothesis-led to hypothesis-generating studies. So let me explain what I mean.
By performing studies that allow us to simultaneously measure the interaction between a large number of genes, proteins, and metabolites, instead of a small and specific collection of molecules, we can gain new insights into how these chemicals interact globally. And we call this hypothesis generating. By performing these studies, we can identify unknown effects of diseases, new targets for drug interventions, or to investigate the effects of pollutants on animals in the environment. The University of Birmingham is home to world leaders in the development and the application of metabolimic science, to study how metabolism operates in a range of topics, in human ageing, human diseases, and in the toxicity of chemicals and nanomaterials to animals living in our environment.
Throughout this course, we will provide examples and case studies from this inspirational research performed here at Birmingham, including within the National NERC Biomolecular Analysis facility and the new Genome Centre Birmingham. The National NERC Biomolecular Analysis facility opened in Birmingham in 2009 to serve the metabolomics needs of the environmental research community. So now we help scientists to apply metabolomics to study the effects of environmental stresses, such as pollution and climate change, on the plant and animal kingdoms by measuring changes in the metabolomes of these species. Genome Centre Birmingham will officially open in January 2016. This new centre will use innovative technologies for metabolic phenotyping in the studies of human health.
We will address important questions in a range of clinical fields, including cancer, endocrinology, immunology, and inflammatory diseases. And we will work in close collaboration with the MRC, NIHRm National Phenome Centre based in London directed by Professor Jeremy Nicholson. And this was the first Phenome Centre opened globally.
In this four week course, I will be joined by other members of our metabolomics team here in Birmingham and some of our collaborators from other research disciplines. We will provide a mixture of lectures, articles, quizzes, and interactive discussions to infuse your study and learning process. In this first week, we will introduce you to metabolomics, explain how we use metabolomics to study metabolism, and describe the advantages of studying the metabolome. Then, during week two, we will discuss the multi-disciplinary approaches that are used in metabolomics, with interviews from a range of scientists to demonstrate how metabolomics drives the development of their research programmes.
And in weeks three and four, we will show you the techniques that we use to conduct metabolomics research, including from analytical chemistry and from computer science. We encourage you to participate in the quizzes and online discussions to maximise your enjoyment of this course and to self-assess your understanding of the course material. The course is aimed at final year undergraduate science students, but we hope that it will provide a fascinating s enjoyable introduction to anyone who wishes to increase their knowledge of some really groundbreaking 21st century science. If you’re unsure that your background knowledge is sufficient to maximise your learning experience, we encourage you to follow the links to the additional resources provided throughout the course.
So we look forward to interacting with you in the online discussions and hope that you will join the metabolomics team on Twitter to share your thoughts on the course and to engage with your fellow learners, helping to make you part of our metabolomics community. f

Metabolomics is the large-scale study of all the metabolites in a biological system. Metabolites are small molecular weight compounds which participate in the metabolic reactions required for growth, maintenance and general function within cells, biofluids, tissues and organisms.

The field of metabolomics combines strategies from analytical chemistry, and bioinformatics and statistical analysis to measure the thousands of metabolites in a samples and extract information from the complex data.

The term ‘metabolome’ was first used in the scientific literature in September 1998 and along with the other ‘omics approaches (genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics) provides an important tool to understand biological systems and how they respond to genetic perturbations and environmental stimuli.

To introduce you to the metabolomic and the research performed at the University of Birmingham Professor Mark Viant welcomes you to the course.

If you are unsure that your background knowledge is sufficient we recommend the following articles to introduce you to metabolomics and maximize your learning experience. We also provide a Glossary in step 1.5.

What is metabolomics all about?

The metabolome 18 years on: a concept comes of age

Metabolomics: what’s happening downstream of DNA

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