NMR in metabolomics and natural products research: two sides of the same coin

Acc Chem Res. 2012 Feb 21;45(2):288-97. doi: 10.1021/ar2001606. Epub 2011 Sep 2.


Small molecules are central to biology, mediating critical phenomena such as metabolism, signal transduction, mating attraction, and chemical defense. The traditional categories that define small molecules, such as metabolite, secondary metabolite, pheromone, hormone, and so forth, often overlap, and a single compound can appear under more than one functional heading. Therefore, we favor a unifying term, biogenic small molecules (BSMs), to describe any small molecule from a biological source. In a similar vein, two major fields of chemical research,natural products chemistry and metabolomics, have as their goal the identification of BSMs, either as a purified active compound (natural products chemistry) or as a biomarker of a particular biological state (metabolomics). Natural products chemistry has a long tradition of sophisticated techniques that allow identification of complex BSMs, but it often fails when dealing with complex mixtures. Metabolomics thrives with mixtures and uses the power of statistical analysis to isolate the proverbial "needle from a haystack", but it is often limited in the identification of active BSMs. We argue that the two fields of natural products chemistry and metabolomics have largely overlapping objectives: the identification of structures and functions of BSMs, which in nature almost inevitably occur as complex mixtures. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is a central analytical technique common to most areas of BSM research. In this Account, we highlight several different NMR approaches to mixture analysis that illustrate the commonalities between traditional natural products chemistry and metabolomics. The primary focus here is two-dimensional (2D) NMR; because of space limitations, we do not discuss several other important techniques, including hyphenated methods that combine NMR with mass spectrometry and chromatography. We first describe the simplest approach of analyzing 2D NMR spectra of unfractionated mixtures to identify BSMs that are unstable to chemical isolation. We then show how the statistical method of covariance can be used to enhance the resolution of 2D NMR spectra and facilitate the semi-automated identification of individual components in a complex mixture. Comparative studies can be used with two or more samples, such as active vs inactive, diseased vs healthy, treated vs untreated, wild type vs mutant, and so on. We present two overall approaches to comparative studies: a simple but powerful method for comparing two 2D NMR spectra and a full statistical approach using multiple samples. The major bottleneck in all of these techniques is the rapid and reliable identification of unknown BSMs; the solution will require all the traditional approaches of both natural products chemistry and metabolomics as well as improved analytical methods, databases, and statistical tools.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Products / chemistry*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy / methods*
  • Metabolomics / methods*
  • Molecular Structure


  • Biological Products