Chemical analysis of whale breath volatiles: a case study for non-invasive field health diagnostics of marine mammals

Metabolites. 2014 Sep 12;4(3):790-806. doi: 10.3390/metabo4030790.


We explored the feasibility of collecting exhaled breath from a moribund gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) for potential non-invasive health monitoring of marine mammals. Biogenic volatile organic compound (VOC) profiling is a relatively new field of research, in which the chemical composition of breath is used to non-invasively assess the health and physiological processes on-going within an animal or human. In this study, two telescopic sampling poles were designed and tested with the primary aim of collecting whale breath exhalations (WBEs). Once the WBEs were successfully collected, they were immediately transferred onto a stable matrix sorbent through a custom manifold system. A total of two large volume WBEs were successfully captured and pre-concentrated onto two Tenax®-TA traps (one exhalation per trap). The samples were then returned to the laboratory where they were analyzed using solid phase micro extraction (SPME) and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). A total of 70 chemicals were identified (58 positively identified) in the whale breath samples. These chemicals were also matched against a database of VOCs found in humans, and 44% of chemicals found in the whale breath are also released by healthy humans. The exhaled gray whale breath showed a rich diversity of chemicals, indicating the analysis of whale breath exhalations is a promising new field of research.