Elementary metabolite units (EMU): a novel framework for modeling isotopic distributions

Metab Eng. 2007 Jan;9(1):68-86. doi: 10.1016/j.ymben.2006.09.001. Epub 2006 Sep 17.


Metabolic flux analysis (MFA) has emerged as a tool of great significance for metabolic engineering and mammalian physiology. An important limitation of MFA, as carried out via stable isotope labeling and GC/MS and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) measurements, is the large number of isotopomer or cumomer equations that need to be solved, especially when multiple isotopic tracers are used for the labeling of the system. This restriction reduces the ability of MFA to fully utilize the power of multiple isotopic tracers in elucidating the physiology of realistic situations comprising complex bioreaction networks. Here, we present a novel framework for the modeling of isotopic labeling systems that significantly reduces the number of system variables without any loss of information. The elementary metabolite unit (EMU) framework is based on a highly efficient decomposition method that identifies the minimum amount of information needed to simulate isotopic labeling within a reaction network using the knowledge of atomic transitions occurring in the network reactions. The functional units generated by the decomposition algorithm, called EMUs, form the new basis for generating system equations that describe the relationship between fluxes and stable isotope measurements. Isotopomer abundances simulated using the EMU framework are identical to those obtained using the isotopomer and cumomer methods, however, require significantly less computation time. For a typical (13)C-labeling system the total number of equations that needs to be solved is reduced by one order-of-magnitude (100s EMUs vs. 1000s isotopomers). As such, the EMU framework is most efficient for the analysis of labeling by multiple isotopic tracers. For example, analysis of the gluconeogenesis pathway with (2)H, (13)C, and (18)O tracers requires only 354 EMUs, compared to more than two million isotopomers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Citric Acid Cycle
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Gluconeogenesis
  • Isotope Labeling
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Metabolism*
  • Models, Biological*


  • Carbon