Perspectives Online

College's new Metabolomics and Proteomics Laboratory advances genomics research

Dr. Nigel Deighton will direct the new program in labs housed at the Toxicology Building (in background).
Photo by Becky Kirkland

In May, Dr. Nigel Deighton walked through two empty rooms in the Toxicology Building that would become facilities for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' new Metabolomics and Proteomics Laboratory.

Deighton, who will direct the College's new metabolomics and proteomics program in the Centennial Campus facility, spoke with certainty that new equipment would arrive and be installed in June. "It's our aim to be operational by July 1," he said.

Metabolomics is the study of "what's going on inside the cell at the level of metabolism," Deighton said. The program will significantly add to the university's programming in systems biology, he said.

The lab was developed with funding from the N.C. Agricultural Research Service and the university's research office. It advances the capabilities of the university's Genome Research Lab (GRL) and will continue to grow as additional funding becomes available.

A native of the United Kingdom, Deighton came to N.C. State earlier this year, after working two years at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Prior to that, he worked for 11 years at the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, Scotland.

The proteomics and metabolomics program will complete the university's systems-biology "square" - linking bioinformatics, structural genomics and transcriptomics, and providing biological information from genotype (the genetic composition of an organism) to phenotype (its function and physical manifestation), Deighton said.

Genomics research, conducted by the GRL, includes the mapping of organisms' genetic codes. Transcriptomics takes the study a step further, exploring the transcription of genes within cells to create RNA.

While the building blocks of the genetic code are the same within most cells of a given organism, different types of cells can produce distinct sets of proteins, depending on the cell's function and environmental factors. Metabolomics research examines the small molecules, or metabolites, produced by proteins. It provides researchers a tool for examining the biochemical results of environmental or genetic changes at the cellular level, such as mutations or drug treatment effects.

"In functional genomics, we ask, 'What does this genome sequence mean?'" he said. "The vast majority of the time, we don't know the purpose of the gene. We want to know, 'What does this protein do?'

"At this point, we may need to look at metabolism as a whole to determine what is different."

Because it is a relatively new science and analytically challenging, metabolomics requires a mixture of techniques for thorough analysis. Among the analytical tools are spectroscopy, chromatography and mass spectrometry, which require highly sophisticated equipment the new labs will provide.

Deighton sees a number of possibilities for using the technology of metabolomics. It could be used as a tool to diagnose disease, such as heart disease, so drugs could be targeted to those who really need them. Compared to invasive surgical techniques, metabolomics or metabolite profiling is relatively inexpensive. In years to come, this will allow for population screening and effective medical intervention, he says.

Another application might be maintaining biodiversity within gene banks of plants that are critical food sources, such as potatoes.

"As we breed plants for different desirable characteristics, others fall by the wayside," he said. "Many (native) varieties are already resistant to certain pests or diseases. We can make use of metabolomics to find out what traits we may wish to reintroduce."

Food science could make use of this technology to identify chemicals in foods and, through comparison with multiple bio-markers, create healthier food crops.

Once the basement labs in the Toxicology Building are transformed, campus scientists can call on the facility to incorporate proteomics and metabolomics in their research. Having a centralized facility for this type of research is very helpful, said Deighton, who has used analytical equipment of this type for 13 years.

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- Natalie Hampton

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