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by Elise Wachspress

If you hang out with cutting edge scientists, you might hear or see the word (the suffix? a crossword puzzle answer?) “omics.” What are omics?

More than likely you‘ve heard of genomics, the study of the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes, the collection of all the DNA in each organism.

And perhaps you’ve heard of transcriptomics, the study of all the ways an organism’s DNA is “transcribed,” or written into smaller molecules, the RNAs. While the DNA provides the basic, relatively unchangeable blueprints, environmental needs in the cell prompt the activation of specific genes. It’s like the highway engineer who, using her part of the blueprint, stages and directs the construction of one of the on-ramps. She’s working in concert with the larger plan, but somewhat separately from those directing other parts of the project.

Then there’s proteomics, the study of the structure and function of all the proteins that carry out the business in the cells. If the genome is a blueprint, and the engineering crew the RNA, the proteins are the molecular machines and building blocks—the backhoes, drills, and concrete—used to carry out the design.

The newest of the ‘omics fields is metabolomics: the study of all the chemical outputs of our cells and every microorganism that lives in and on us. These molecules, taken together, reflect the entire, functioning system, like how the cars and trucks using the highway are moving and thus creating new capital for society. Metabolomics is something like Here or Google maps, measuring important indicators of how the system is performing at both the street and system level. In a biological system, a genome can tell you what is possible, but the metabolome tells you what is actually happening.

But these readouts are more complex and critically useful: how a particular drug is working, how our immune system is responding, how microbes inside us are contributing to our health or modifying their environment to outcompete others, or even how our brains are prompting our bodies to act, and vice versa. New metabolomics technologies can help scientists non-invasively identify disease biomarkers, discover microbial products that can become new drugs, and identify the safest, most efficient ways to maintain health.

Among the many important resources the Duchossois Family Institute (DFI) is developing at UChicago is a facility that specializes in metabolomics. Led by Jean-Luc Chaubard, the DFI Host-Microbe Metabolomics Facility will feature state-of-the-art mass spectrometry, a powerful analytical technique that can be used to detail the profile of complex mixtures, whether solid, liquid, or gas. With this and other advanced instrumentation, DFI scientists will be able to understand the balance of molecules in blood, plasma, saliva, fecal, and even tissue samples, as well as in the waste products left behind when microbes are cultured (grown) outside the body.

Chaubard and his group will be looking at many things: from neurotransmitters and amino acids to bile acids and short-chain fatty acids, recently identified as critical to a healthy immune system. They will use large chemical libraries to create specialized “panels” that can profile multiple metabolites simultaneously. With these capabilities on campus, individual investigators will have ready access to new assays tailored specifically to their work.

The Metabolomics Facility will also help DFI investigators hone experimental design, decide when and how best to collect and store samples, and prepare those samples for testing. Importantly, they will also help in the data analysis that is critical in massive data-collection regimens like mass spec.

Chaubard, with a background both in academia (at Memorial Sloan Kettering and Caltech) and business (as founding director of the Molecular Discovery Lab at Modern Meadow, in New Jersey) is up for the challenge. An entrepreneur at heart, he is excited to be launching a resource that will set up UChicago as a leader in studying the convergence of immunology, the microbiome, and human health: “Here at UChicago, I get to work with some of the best scientists and doctors in the world, translating their work into practical applications that range from mechanistic understanding of human biology to early disease detection and discovery of novel drugs. It’s an honor to have this opportunity to improve the human condition.”

The Metabolomics Center is just one of the new platform resources made possible by a $100 million gift from The Duchossois Family Foundation and Craig and Janet Duchossois. We will bring you descriptions of several more in the weeks to come.

Elise Wachspress is a senior communications strategist for the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Development office.