Purdue University Graduate School
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posted on 2022-10-12, 21:03 authored by Rong ChenRong Chen

Mass spectrometry (MS) can provide rapid, sensitive, and specific analysis, making it a valuable tool to characterize biomolecules, especially their dynamic changes when involved in significant processes.  Compared to other analytical techniques, which mostly focus on solution-phase or solid-phase characterization, MS enjoys a more general and efficient detection of gas-phase analytes since it ultimately measures abundances of bare ions in vacuum. This unique detection capability of MS has been demonstrated, in this dissertation, by characterizing the neutral serine octamer, a gas-phase amino acid cluster that has been detected by MS only so far. Besides its existence, the progress of chiral enrichment has also been monitored and quantified by MS during octamer formation. The acquired MS data is crucial to interpreting the mechanism of chiral enrichment achieved by serine octamer and might suggest its involvement in the prebiotic world to eventually achieve biohomochirality. The work also showcases the capability of detecting neutral compounds by MS, which breaks the stereotype that MS is exclusively an ion-based technique. 

Besides process monitoring in the open air, MS also monitors the highly complicated metabolism processes inside biosamples, primarily benefiting from its excellent sensitivity, specificity, and throughput of ion detection. Since altered cellular metabolism is being recognized as a hallmark of cancer, MS is suitable for cancer diagnostics, whose performance of diagnosing glioma, a common brain cancer, has been tested.  Desorption electrospray ionization(DESI) has been used as it avoids sample preparation and allows direct characterization of raw tissue, therefore well suited for on-site analysis such as in the operating room. In short, we have applied intraoperative DESI-MS analysis on raw brain biopsies to provide glioma diagnostics within 5 min. Specifically, the molecular features revealed by MS are translated into pathological information of analyzed tissue, like genetic mutations and tumor concentrations, which is highly desired during surgeries to guide tumor resection and improve patient management. 

Knowledge of diagnostic biomarkers is essential to the translation from MS data to pathology, which can be obtained by metabolic profiling using MS. Despite the tradeoff between comprehensive characterization and analysis time, we have extensively explored endogenous metabolites by using tandem MS and expedited analysis by avoiding the use of chromatography. After fast profiling, statistical analysis of all MS features has been applied to discover diagnostic markers to distinguish healthy brain tissue from cancerous tissue. DESI-MS methods have been developed to facilitate a simple and rapid characterization of these biomarkers in tissue for a smooth clinical transition. 

However, the complete characterization of endogenous metabolites in a complicated biomixture, like tissue, is challenging, especially without the orthogonal separation provided by chromatography. This unmet demand calls for the development of novel MS scans to improve the metabolite coverage. For lipidomics by direct infusion MS, the MS scans used for lipid profiling have not been greatly expanded since its introduction. These conventionalMS scans only target one structural moiety of lipids and leave the rest unresolved, which limits the structure elucidation and biological interpretation of diagnostic lipids. We have introduced additional lipid scans that target both the lipid headgroup and one fatty acyl chain, leaving the other fatty acyl chain flexible. These scans with higher specificity can further alleviate the matrix effect by uncovering fewer ions in each scan and provide more structural information to support lipid identification. As a proof-of-concept, we have used them to profile both common phospholipids and the rarer ether lipids that display significant variations between healthy mice tissue and those with metabolic syndrome. The additional structural information provided by these scans ensures a clear message expressed by the disease metabolism and potentially indicates invention points and therapeutic candidates.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Chemistry

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

R. Graham Cooks

Additional Committee Member 2

Gaurav Chopra

Additional Committee Member 3

Shelley Claridge

Additional Committee Member 4

Andy Weiguo Tao