food and environment: complex molecular mixtures The work of Fera’s chemical and biochemical profiling team focuses on the analysis of complex molecular mixtures. In the areas of metabolomics and proteomics this covers project work including disease diagnostics, the effects of climate change, environmental pollution, genetic improvement/ resistance, nanotechnology, authenticity and traceability.
The focus of the team is primarily on the development and application of non-targeted detection or profiling techniques. The team utilise perhaps the most sophisticated analytical systems at the Sand Hutton site. Specifically these are advanced mass spectrometers and the two high-resolution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometers. These instruments are used to determine the chemical structure of a range of compounds in the most challenging of matrices. The need for advanced technology includes the detection of chemicals in emergency scenarios, and necessary improvement in our understanding of what happens to the composition of food when plants and animals are affected by things like disease or climate change. Biomarkers The identification of biomarkers of disease can lead to earlier diagnosis or a greater understanding of disease progression, potentially leading to novel intervention strategies. Studying climate change scenarios, and how they may impact on crop composition and performance is helping Fera to assist with the development of new varieties of crop which cope better in the longer term and give a more sustainable food supply chain. This complements Fera’s work on producing sustainable food products, by helping customers find natural alternatives to food chemicals.
Similar approaches are used at Fera to study environmental pollution, looking at the impact on organisms and detecting chemicals in the environment, using non-targeted approaches. For example, Fera is currently developing a methodology that will help to determine the impact on humans and animals of exposure to environmental nanoparticles. New Technologies Fera’s contaminant detection work feeds into routine monitoring and regulation, and the laboratory is developing new technologies all of the time. It is hoped that some of the main techniques used, such as NMR and mass spectrometry, will provide novel imaging solutions. An active collaboration with York University is currently investigating NMR polarisation techniques, which will lead to improved detection sensitivity. Polarisation techniques work by allowing more of the molecules that are present in a mixture to be seen when placed inside a normal NMR spectrometer. This is achieved by preparing the samples differently and so the capability of the current NMR instruments will be improved. In one example, the detection sensitivity has been improved by up to 30,000 times, potentially allowing the identification of compounds that have never been seen before. This improvement in sensitivity will also allow current
processes to be streamlined, with experiments that previously took hours to perform being conducted in fractions of a second and making high resolution molecular imaging a real possibility. Collaboration As with so many other areas of Fera’s work, collaborations with the likes of the universities of York, Cambridge and Oxford resulted in visiting staff providing significant contributions to some projects run by the team. Fera also collaborates with industrial partners and a recent example of this is the placement of two seed instruments at the laboratory by Thermo Fisher Scientific. These will allow Fera scientists to utilise state of the art mass spectrometry equipment to develop initiatives that are of mutual benefit. Fera frequently works with industry in product development support, particularly in relation to the food and beverage sectors.
Fera Solutions Magazine