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UGA leading unknown compound identification effort

Alan Flurry

The National Institutes of Health has established UGA as a core center of efforts to unblock a bottleneck in biological and medical research:

University of Georgia scientists will utilize genetics and quantum chemistry as tools for identifying unknown metabolites in the human body as one of five Compound Identification Development Cores in the United States. The initiative, funded by National Institutes of Health Metabolomics Common Fund, is designed to address emerging scientific opportunities and pressing challenges in biomedical research.

Metabolites are small molecules that are vital to many functions in the body. They are building blocks of DNA, proteins and lipids, sources of energy, and are responsible for chemical signaling and interactions with other organisms.

Metabolomics is the large-scale study of small molecules within cells, biofluids, tissues or organisms. At the leading edge of scientific research into the causes for disease, the study of the unique chemical fingerprints left behind by specific cellular processes is the focus of efforts to understand what happens in a biological cell. New technologies and calculation techniques permit researchers to access vast quantities of biological material. However, the capacity of technology and the sheer volume of samples that can be measured has led to a bottleneck at the point of identifying the molecules.

“That’s the world we live in now and unlike genomics, where a gene sequence can often give a pretty good idea of what that gene is, in metabolomics, it’s still very much the ‘Wild West,’” said Arthur Edison, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and genetics and a principal investigator on the $950,000 grant. “Depending on the system, between 50 to 90 percent of the signals that we can measure now are unknown.”

Difficult to overstate how crucial this work is, regarded as a top research priority by the leadership at NIH. A collaboration of federal support and vision at the state, university and college level to assemble faculty expertise, the core will help scientists around the world keep up with their research capabilities, which have raced ahead of the data in many ways, thank to technology and other knowledge breakthroughs. Kudos to Edison and his colleagues around the country.

Image of the NMR lab at the CCRC, Arthur Edison, right.

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