The undernourished neonatal mouse metabolome reveals evidence of liver and biliary dysfunction, inflammation, and oxidative stress

J Nutr. 2014 Mar;144(3):273-81. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.183731. Epub 2013 Dec 31.


Undernutrition contributes to half of all childhood deaths under the age of 5 y, and confers upon survivors a life-long predisposition to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Mechanisms underlying the link between early nutrient deprivation and noncommunicable diseases are unknown. Using outbred CD1 neonatal mice, we measured metabolic profile differences between conventionally reared mice given unrestricted access to nursing, the control group, and undernourished mice subjected to protein-calorie deprivation through timed separation from lactating mothers. After 11 d of undernutrition, urine, plasma, liver, ileal fluid, cecal fluid, and stool were harvested from 8 pools of 4 neonatal mice per group. The metabolome was identified using a multiplatform mass spectrometry-based approach, and random forest metrics were used to identify the most important metabolites that distinguished the undernourished from the control group. Our data reveal striking metabolic changes in undernourished mice consistent with the known mammalian response to starvation, including evidence of muscle and fat catabolism and increased reliance on the tricarboxylic acid cycle for energy. However, we also revealed evidence of liver and biliary injury, anomalies in bile acid metabolism, oxidative stress and inflammation, accelerated heme breakdown, and altered regulation of DNA methylation. Among the metabolites that most strongly distinguished the 2 groups were 2-hydroxyisobutyrate, increased 3-fold in plasma of undernourished mice (P = 2.19 × 10(-11)); urobilinogen, increased 11-fold in urine of undernourished mice (P = 4.22 × 10(-7)); deoxycholate, decreased 94% in stool of undernourished mice (P = 3.0 × 10(-4)); and 12 different products of the enzyme γ-glutamyltransferase, increased in all 6 compartments of undernourished mice. This model of the undernourished neonatal metabolome illustrates the wide range of pathways disrupted by undernutrition in early development, and suggests mechanistic links between early starvation and persistent metabolic diseases.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Biliary Tract Diseases / etiology
  • Biliary Tract Diseases / pathology*
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Biomarkers / urine
  • DNA Methylation
  • Female
  • Hydroxybutyrates / blood
  • Inflammation / etiology
  • Inflammation / pathology*
  • Liver Diseases / etiology
  • Liver Diseases / pathology*
  • Male
  • Malnutrition / complications
  • Malnutrition / pathology*
  • Metabolome*
  • Mice
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • gamma-Glutamyltransferase / metabolism


  • Biomarkers
  • Hydroxybutyrates
  • 2-hydroxyisobutyric acid
  • gamma-Glutamyltransferase