A mobile gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer for measurement of metabolites and volatile substances in biological systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Animal and Plant Sciences


To improve our ability to develop a sustainable agriculture that uses lower inputs and can respond to climate change requires experimentation in the field with agricultural crops. Such experiment require measurements of compounds such as metabolites, or compounds which are characteristic of organisms that live in close proximity to crops, and which provide important components for sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately many of these compounds are not very stable. Currently much expense and effort is required to transport samples to the laboratory for analysis, and it is not clear that the analyses that result accurately reflect the dynamics of plants in their field environment. . Field experiments need large amounts of replication because the field is not a very uniform environment. Mass spectrometry is a very powerful analytical tool to identify and measure these compounds but the machines tend to be very large. Thus until recently such field experiments have required expensive procedures to transport material back to the laboratory. However during the last 18 months a new mass spectrometer has become available. It is the size of a large brief case and can be taken to the field for the measurements required. The aim of this proposal is to purchase this machine so that the machine can be taken to the sample in the field, rather than the sample taken to the machine in the laboratory. This will improve both the accuracy and the efficiency of field experiments, while at the same time reducing costs associated with current sampling practice.
This new equipment will be maintained by the biOMICS Mass Spectrometry Facility in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sheffield.

Technical Summary

The aim of this application is to equip the biOMICS Mass Spectrometry Facility in the Faculty of Science at the University with a Torion field-portable gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS). The equipment combines solid-phase microextraction, purge-and-trap, thermal desorption, and heated headspace sampling techniques which provide a fast response for in-field analysis of organic compounds in a wide variety of samples including waters, plants, and soil. Two specific applications in current projects are the analysis of lipids which provide markers that allow the characterisation of microbial populations and the analysis of shoot exudates in different genotypes of maize. This purchase will allow the expertise in the Facility to be used directly in the field in numerous projects in which it is involved. The aim is to take the mass spectrometer to the sample rather than the sample to the mass spectrometer, thus improving the quality of analyses by undertaking both targeted and untargeted analyses in situ, with acquisition of quantitative and qualitative data from crops and plants that more accurately reflects their composition and dynamics at the time of sampling, while at the same time avoiding the costs of under-, over- or mis-sampling associated with the transport of samples back to a centralised Facility.

Planned Impact

This proposal is to enhance the capabilities of the Biomics Mass Spectrometry Facility in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sheffield by equipping it with the ability to make sensitive measurements associated with sustainable crop and food security programmes, using mass spectrometry out in the field.
The immediate benefit that will be gained is to extend the expertise of analytical biochemistry already present in the Facility to colleagues within the department working on projects involving sustainable agriculture as well as to associated colleagues at other Institutions. Research assistants and technicians on relevant projects will be trained in how to make measurements in the field and how to process and understand the data produced. A mobile GC-MS is designed to be used by the non-specialist once set up by a member of the Facility. However the metabolic profiling data acquired by the instrument requires complex statistical analysis and training will be provided to show how to analyse potentially very large data sets appropriately. The Facility also provides training in more fundamental aspects of mass spectrometry and analytical biochemistry which will guide colleagues in how to use the machine appropriately. Since the Facility supports a wide range of projects, some of which are in other Universities such as Leeds, Reading and York, the purchase of a mobile GC-MS will benefit these groups as above but also expose their colleagues to the potential of the new technology. The projects that the Facility supports involve making agriculture more sustainable, improving the quality of food and human health by increasing efficiency and sustainability of crop production. Thus in the longer term there will be significant benefits to society by improving quality of life.


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Description This award allowed for the development of novel biological markers of plant stress
Exploitation Route We plan to publish our new methods and have received internal pump priming funds to apply those methods in a novel context with an industry partner
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description We have received internal pump priming funds to apply those methods in a novel context with an industry partner (Severn Trent) to used the portable GCMS to test for damaging agricultural runoff entering the drinking water supply
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services