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Mass spectrometry and separation science in Biotechnology

Biological and biotechnological systems are often very complex, containing a large number (hundreds to thousands) of distinct chemical compounds. The use of mass spectrometry (MS) coupled to chromatographic separation (GC, LC, IC, FFF) allows for sensitive and robust quantification (ng/ml and below) of one or several selected compounds. This can be done even when the compound(s) of interest is present at very low concentration and in complex mixtures with closely related molecules. No other analytical technique can provide the same combination of sensitivity, selectivity and specificity for biological systems.

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A complementary use of MS in biotechnology is so-called untargeted analyses, where simultaneous detection and quantification of as many compounds as possible is used to either look for novel, unknown compounds and/or create a biochemical 'fingerprint' where each compound need not be known. This fingerprint is then used as input for advanced statistical methods, chemometry, and subsequent classification and trend analysis.

Selected key application areas for MS and separation methods in biotechnology at SINTEF (MS lab)

  • Process optimization support by sensitive, ultra-high throughput quantification of desired products (e.g. biopharmaceuticals, steroids, biogenic amines, antioxidants) and unwanted side products.
  • Quantification of nutrients and primary metabolites (e.g. amino acids, organic acids, sugars, alcohols) important for cell growth and biosynthesis of desired end products. Primary metabolite quantification is also necessary for systems and synthetic biology.
  • Product control during purification and downstream processing
  • Screening and detection of novel bioactive compounds in combination with biological activity assays, and initial structure elucidation of the novel compounds.
  • Typing and classification (fingerprinting) of microbial strains for medical, environmental or process development purposes
  • Sensitive quantification of native or heterologously produced enzymes and proteins. Modification (e.g. glycosylation) studies of proteins.
  • Food and feed; safety studies by monitoring toxins, trace metals and other contaminants, and food quality analyses (e.g. oxidation, maturation, sensory quantification).
  • Flux studies in biochemical reaction networks for systems and synthetic biology, by stable isotope labelling.
  • MS imaging. This is a novel, general technique, giving label-free 2D chemical microscopy in morphologically complex biological specimens (microbial, plant, fish and animal tissue). The resulting images visualize abundance distribution of all ionisable compounds (small molecules, and to some extent proteins) in the sample with a lateral resolution down to 20 µm.
  • Analysis of nanoparticles (environmental and medical) in biological systems; size, size distribution, composition and drug release. These analyses can also be applied to intact viruses and cellular compartments.
  • Separation and analysis of very large biopolymers by field flow fractionation (FFF).

Read more about advanced research-based analyses

Other contact persons: Anna Nordborg