Metabolic Fingerprints

28 Sep

Metabolomics, also called Metabonomics, is the study of the unique chemical fingerprints the metabolic processes within the body leave behind. I like the term Metabolic Fingerprint since it’s easier to say.

In medicine, metabolism simply means the array of chemical processes that silently go on within our bodies. The digestion of food, the alteration or destruction of medicines or drugs by the liver, the conversion of protein to muscle tissue, the use of various sugars for energy, the repair of injured tissues, and every other chemical process within the body would fall under the broad umbrella of metabolism.

We are a product of our genetic makeup and our environment, the two working in concert to determine virtually everything about our lives. Our genes determine how each of our metabolic processes will work. For example, an individual with diabetes metabolizes sugar and produces chemical byproducts of this metabolism much differently than does someone without diabetes.

Since each of us has a different genetic makeup and each of us is exposed to different environmental influences, including diet, medications or drugs consumed, exposure to illnesses, workplace toxin exposures, stresses, and many other things, it would be expected that each of us possesses a different metabolism and therefore a unique Metabolic Fingerprint.

The key point Is that each of us is unique genetically and environmentally, each of us has different metabolic processes going on inside, and therefore each of us produces a unique combination of chemicals and metabolic byproducts in our body. A German research team has begun using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Spectroscopy to develop these Metabolic Fingerprints, or as they call them Metabonomic Fingerprints.

Does Metabolic Fingerprinting have a place in current medicine and forensic science? Not yet, but maybe soon. The beauty of friction ridge prints (standard fingerprints) is that they are unique and they do not change over a lifetime. If either of these were not true, then fingerprinting would not the useful forensic tool that it is. In order for any identification technique to be useful, it must fulfill both the criteria–it is individual and it does not change over time. This is not only true in fingerprinting but also in DNA analysis.

Do our Metabolic Fingerprints fulfill these criteria? The answer is maybe. We need to know much more. With the ongoing research using NMR spectroscopy and other modalities we may soon have the answer. The problem I see is that our metabolism changes from day to day simply because each day we are exposed to different nutrients, stresses, and environmental influences. Unlike fingerprints, which are static physical properties, our metabolic properties are in constant motion. If researchers can prove that our Metabolic Fingerprint is unique and does not change over time, this could be a useful tool for forensic investigation. If the metabolic analysis of biologic materials left at a crime scene could be matched to a particular individual, when fingerprints and DNA were not available, then this could serve as a useful method for identification. DNA can often be found in latent fingerprints (the so-called touch DNA) but not always. Perhaps one day, the oils left behind in a smudged and DNA-free fingerprint will be chemically fingerprinted and matched to a particular individual. It will be interesting to watch this research and see how it develops.

Science Base Article


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