Unraveling the unknown areas of the human metabolome: the role of infrared ion spectroscopy

J Inherit Metab Dis. 2018 May;41(3):367-377. doi: 10.1007/s10545-018-0161-8. Epub 2018 Mar 19.


The identification of molecular biomarkers is critical for diagnosing and treating patients and for establishing a fundamental understanding of the pathophysiology and underlying biochemistry of inborn errors of metabolism. Currently, liquid chromatography/high-resolution mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy are the principle methods used for biomarker research and for structural elucidation of small molecules in patient body fluids. While both are powerful techniques, several limitations exist that often make the identification of unknown compounds challenging. Here, we describe how infrared ion spectroscopy has the potential to be a valuable orthogonal technique that provides highly-specific molecular structure information while maintaining ultra-high sensitivity. Here, we characterize and distinguish two well-known biomarkers of inborn errors of metabolism, glutaric acid for glutaric aciduria and ethylmalonic acid for short-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency, using infrared ion spectroscopy. In contrast to tandem mass spectra, in which ion fragments can hardly be predicted, we show that the prediction of an IR spectrum allows reference-free identification in the case that standard compounds are either commercially or synthetically unavailable. Finally, we illustrate how functional group information can be obtained from an IR spectrum for an unknown and how this is valuable information to, for example, narrow down a list of candidate structures resulting from a database query. Early diagnosis in inborn errors of metabolism is crucial for enabling treatment and depends on the identification of biomarkers specific for the disorder. Infrared ion spectroscopy has the potential to play a pivotal role in the identification of challenging biomarkers.

Keywords: Biomarkers; Computational chemistry; Feature identification; HMDB; Inborn errors of metabolism; Infrared ion spectroscopy; Molecular structure analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis*
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Metabolism, Inborn Errors / diagnosis*
  • Metabolism, Inborn Errors / metabolism
  • Metabolome / physiology*
  • Spectrophotometry, Infrared


  • Biomarkers