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Real-Time Mass Spectrometry On Living Microbes

Microbes are tiny synthetic masters, producing molecules that have led to many important drugs. Chemists want new ways to sift through the compounds produced by microbes to find the next big drug lead. Now, scientists report a mass spectrometry technique that allows them to monitor molecules produced by living microorganisms in real time (Anal. Chem. 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ac401613x).

As chemists screen through large numbers of microbial colonies to find novel compounds, they need to be able to take quick snapshots of a colony’s molecular profile, says Pieter C. Dorrestein, a bioanalytical mass spectrometrist at the University of California, San Diego. Current analytical methods either require putting microbes in a vacuum chamber, which kills them, or collecting compounds and separating them before identification, which is time consuming.

Dorrestein and his coworkers adapted an ambient electrospray ionization (ESI) technique to analyze metabolites from 34 different types of living microbes. The method was originally developed by Gary J. Van Berkel at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to analyze interactions between antibodies and proteins. This is the first time anyone has used it to look at microbial colonies, Dorrestein says.

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