Discovering the world one molecule at a time: 42 scientists on a metabolomics adventure
An EAG Sponsored Student Reports Back – by Elisa Katharina Peter
Ok, so if you have never dealt with metabolomics before, a Metabolomics Bioinformatics Course may sound very dry and kind of cryptic. Let me tell you why it was one of the most exciting weeks of 2022 for me (I say one of the most exciting, because I went to the Conference on Polar and Alpine Microbiology in Potsdam two weeks prior and I can’t pick favorites.). For one full week, I got to work with peers, learn from experts in the field and discuss the ins and outs and state of the art of metabolomics. Why metabolomics?
I’ll give you some background: Metabolomics is the large-scale study of small molecule building blocks, such as lipids, amino acids and sugars, in biological systems. These building blocks, or metabolites, make up all larger macromolecules like DNA, RNA and proteins, signaling molecules and structural components of a cell or larger organism (i.e. you and me). In short, they are the building blocks of life and involved in all activities of an organism (like your eyes moving over this article) and adaptive responses to their environment. And this last part – adaptive responses of organisms to their environment – is why I love metabolomics. Because by analyzing the metabolome (all metabolites that are present at a given time) of an organism, tissue or biological system, we can determine its biochemical phenotype and, if we have enough references, assess its current physiological state. This is what I do within my PhD.
My PhD research is part of the ERC Synergy funded project DEEP PURPLE, which consist of a highly diverse, multidisciplinary team, investigating the physical and microbial processes that darken the Greenland Ice Sheet and accelerate sea level rise. My role in the team is to further our understanding of the factors controlling growth and pigment formation in glacier ice and snow algae, by exploring metabolic adaptations as their ultimate phenotypical response. Thus, in order to advance my skills and provide the best possible value to our team, it was very beneficial for me to attend the EMBO Practical Course on Metabolomics Bioinformatics for Life Scientists in Wageningen and I was thrilled to get the opportunity thanks to the support of the European Association of Geochemistry.
During the course, which included a total of 30 participants and 12 trainers, we covered topics ranging from metabolomics study design, sample processing and analysis, data treatment and statistical evaluation, discussed current trends, fair practices and had many practical sessions using R Studio and web-based tools for data analysis.
I particularly enjoyed dissecting the various approaches for data normalization and analytical drift correction and getting inspired by and learning from the poster presentations of my peers. With my own poster I also got a chance to present my work on determining the effect of different processing strategies in metabolomics of glacier ice algae, which I am currently preparing for publication. So, this was a fantastic opportunity for me to receive feedback on current work, get inspired and build a new network of colleagues to challenge each other’s ideas share resources and support.
What set the whole week apart for me was the extraordinarily open, supportive and uplifting atmosphere which was created not least because of Jos Hageman and Reza Salek who did a fantastic job in organizing and setting the tone for this event. After 2 years with little chance of meeting in person any meeting would have been refreshing, but this one was truly special. And with the right group of people, even waiting out the fire alarm in front of a hotel at 3AM can be fun. Kinda.
About the Author
Elisa Katharina Peter is a PhD student at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam and within the ERC Synergy funded project DEEP PURPLE. She studies adaptations and controls of glacier microbial communities using mass spectrometry-based metabolomics and gets generally excited about pigments. Elisa is co-chair of the German Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS Germany), creating networking opportunities, supporting early careers and doing science communication. If she’s not at work you’ll find her outdoors, preferably hiking mountains and listening to audiobooks.