Dark matter in host-microbiome metabolomics: Tackling the unknowns-A review

Anal Chim Acta. 2018 Dec 11:1037:13-27. doi: 10.1016/j.aca.2017.12.034. Epub 2017 Dec 30.


The "dark matter" in metabolomics (unknowns) represents an exciting frontier with significant potential for discovery in relation to biochemistry, yet it also presents one of the largest challenges to overcome. This focussed review takes a close look at the current state-of-the-art and future challenges in tackling the unknowns with specific focus on the human gut microbiome and host-microbe interactions. Metabolomics, like metabolism itself, is a very dynamic discipline, with many workflows and methods under development, both in terms of chemical analysis and post-analysis data processing. Here, we look at developments in the mutli-omic analyses and the use of mass spectrometry to investigate the exchange of metabolites between the host and the microbiome as well as the environment within the microbiome. A case study using HuMiX, a microfluidics-based human-microbial co-culture system that enables the co-culture of human and microbial cells under controlled conditions, is used to highlight opportunities and current limitations. Common definitions, approaches, databases and elucidation techniques from both the environmental and metabolomics fields are covered, with perspectives on how to merge these, as the boundaries blur between the fields. While reflecting on the number of unknowns remaining to be conquered in typical complex samples measured with mass spectrometry (often orders of magnitude above the "knowns"), we provide an outlook on future perspectives and challenges in elucidating the relevant "dark matter".

Keywords: Dark matter; Known unknowns; Mass spectrometry; Metabolomics; Microbiome; Unknowns.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Metabolomics*
  • Microbiota*