Mass spectrometry: Understanding the concept and its main applications

The history of mass spectrometry (MS) can be traced back to 1918, when J.J. Thompson identified new isotopes of common elements, such as chlorine. Then, governments recognized the potential of mass spectrometry, and this technique began to be used in the development of early nuclear weapons. Over the years, mass spectrometers have transitioned to biotech companies, petroleum organizations, chemical industries and the list can continue.

Let’s discover more about spectrometry and its application in everyday life.


The concept of spectrometry

Spectrometry measures the interaction between matter and light and the reactions of wavelength and radiation intensity. Simply put, spectrometry is a method of measuring and studying a specific spectrum, and it is widely used to analyze sample materials. Mass spectrometry is a type of spectrometry that checks the mass-to-charge ratio of the molecules present in a sample.

This technique is made by ionizing the particles with the help of a shower of electrons that are then passed through a magnetic field to separate the particles into different stages of deflection. When the particles are separated, an electron multiplier measures them so that we will be able to determine the makeup of the sample.

Mass spectrometry has practical uses, including protein characterization and isotope dating. Mars Phoenix Lander, an independent roving space exploration robot, uses mass spectrometers to analyze foreign soils.

Spectrometric uses have also been incorporated into numerous applications, including electromagnetic radiation analyses, color measurements and to determine the concentration of chemical components. These processes are made with a spectrometer, which is a powerful tool to verify the safety of raw materials or measure chemical reactions.


The history of spectrometry

The first one to discover spectrometry was Isaac Newton, who saw that the focusing light through glass could split into the colors of the rainbow, a phenomenon that is known as light spectrum. The spectrum is visible to anyone, but it took centuries to develop the studies of this phenomenon and to have usable conclusions.

In our atmosphere, the natural light from celestial bodies like the sun goes through various reactions, and each chemical element can react differently in this process: some of them with a wavelength between 390-700 nm can be detectable to the eye, while other are invisible, such as ultraviolet and infrared waves.


Emerging applications of mass spectrometry

Metabolomic snapshots

Metabolomics analyzes the small molecule metabolites present in a biological system. Due to the internal and external interferences and the complexity of the system, the molecule metabolites can be quite challenging to analyze. However, mass spectrometry improved this process and changed its use in drug development and discovery.

Spectrometry can also help in understanding better antibiotic resistance to provide individualized patient care.

Food quality

Mass spectrometry is also used in the food industry to test allergens and pesticides and check the quality of the food before companies release it into the market. MS is  used extensively in product safety departments and supply chains with the help of an NIR spectrometer, which uses wavelengths between 700 and 2500 nm. Because of this fact it is perfect for the analysis of food, pharmaceutical, agricultural and chemical products.

For example, honey is a daily ingredient that is constantly adulterated with sulfonamides to increase its antibiotic resistance with time. With the help of mass spectrometry, professionals can test and determine the content of sulfonamides in honey. MS can also be used to check the quality of food, as it detects specific protein biomarkers and microbes so that the food will preserve its quality. In this way, issues that happened in the Chipotle scandal can be diminished. 

Epigenetic and genomics applications

Cancer is one of the most known diseases in the world, characterized by mutations in the functional genes. Lately, there have been studies showing the importance of epigenetics in causing a couple of diseases, including cancer. With the help of mass spectrometry, these epigenetic changes can be easily quantified. For instance, in acute myeloid leukemia, epigenetic TET effects and genetic mutations play a crucial role in controlling the disease condition. So, mass spectrometry can be used to study the treatment response, explore the underlying biology and identify new drug targets.

Forensic lab

Do you know that the detector’s sensors at the airports are mass spectrometry instruments? They check the identification of explosive compounds and illegal drugs or confirm substance drug abuse. Furthermore, MS can easily measure steroid overuse, especially for celebrities and athletes. In forensic studies, MS can be helpful in identifying the datable traces of a suspect.

MS is also used in toxicology to detect potential toxins after analyzing the blood samples. It can also determine the poison in the blood of the victim and thus have a clear image of the cause and time of a person’s death. 

Newborn screening

With advances in science and mass spectrometry, we are able to screen newborns and figure out if they are at risk of developing diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular issues. Compared with the conventional newborn screening, the new approach gives fewer false positives, as it tests different biological specimens.

For instance, lysosomal storage disorders can be asymptomatic during childhood, but the symptoms can appear later. However, MS can identify these risks during childbirth with the help of metabolomics-based studies or by using biomarkers.

Geology and space science

Another fantastic application of mass spectrometry is in the environmental and astronomy sciences. MS is able to determine the isotopes and elements in the solar wind, locate oil deposits by taking a look at the petroleum precursors in rocks or record climate changes. This is why NASA uses mass spectrometry instruments to help them explore the universe better. For example, Saturn’s atmosphere is analyzed for the quality and air composition to calculate the percentage of toxins and chemicals on the planet.

Creativity and imagination are the limits

Often, people think that mass spectrometry is challenging and complex, but in reality, the instruments used in this analysis are accurate, compact, easy to use, rapid and flexible. Mass spectrometry has plenty of applications, and even if we are not really aware of this, MA is present in our everyday life on a regular basis.

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