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Rothamsted’s Metabolomics facility delivers high throughput spectroscopic data pertaining to metabolite composition of biological tissues, and the expert analysis of that data to answer a range of biological questions, predominantly in plant and crop sciences.

A typical metabolomics experiment within the facility involves hundreds and often thousands of samples that are processed via a number of different steps requiring a range of skills and expertise. Sampling and tissue preparation is followed by metabolite extraction using a range of solvents. The extracted metabolites are analysed using spectroscopic techniques (NMR, ESI-MS, LC-MS or GC-MS). Subsequent processing of the spectral data provides multiple large scale complex datasets that can be analysed using a variety of statistical methods.

The most difficult part of the work is in the annotation (i.e. identification) of metabolites in the NMR or mass spectral data. Most of the metabolites present in plants do not figure in available spectral libraries and thus structures of new compounds need to be worked out (after isolation) and validated. This can only be done with expertise in structural chemistry and since each sample contains many hundreds of peaks this is not trivial. Similarly, the composition varies across species.

What Science do we support? : Our raison d’être is to deliver comprehensive metabolomics/metabolite profiling to a range of users in plant science research. At the current time we have a large input into the TPM ISPG, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​analysing willow tissues in the context of high value products and biosynthetic pathway discovery. There is also a large input into the newly funded UM6P Bioproducts for African Agriculture project, analysing a range of plant species adapted to arid landscapes. Smaller pieces of work support PIs employed on DFW and SCP projects. We have previously conducted research on a wide range of plant species, including wheat & other cereals, brassicas, seed crops, rice and tomatoes. Our work also extends to analysing interactions between plant-insect or plant pathogen. We also deliver services to external clients. At the current time we have ongoing contracts with Unilever Research and Femtogenix.

In addition, our high field NMR instrumentation and knowledge of natural product chemistry means that we are ideally positioned to support large scale research projects in secondary metabolism including the identification of plant bio-actives and their biosynthesis. Operating as a cost-recovery unit, the facility aims to recover the full cost of its staff and running costs such that it can continue to support large scale institute projects while developing its own research and technical capability such that we remain internationally competitive.