Arthur S. Edison, Ph.D.
The University of Georgia
Metabolomics is a fast-growing area of investigation, focused on small molecules called metabolites that are essential to life. Through metabolomics, scientists eventually may be able to get an instantaneous, comprehensive snapshot of a person’s health – opening up new avenues for diagnosing illnesses and evaluating the effects of various life events.
As one of the field’s leading researchers, Arthur Edison has helped develop improved techniques and instrumentation to advance metabolomics research as a whole.
While at the University of Florida, Edison launched a major research center dedicated to exploring metabolomics on a large scale – with established protocols and best practices for necessities like consistent measurements, quality control, and data storage. In his new role at the University of Georgia, Edison will lead the world-class Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility in the UGA Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. The facility has long supported significant research in structural biology; under Edison’s leadership, it will become a major center for metabolomics, too.
Metabolomics is a “big picture” approach to looking at metabolites, small molecules found in cells. The by-products of the metabolic process, metabolites provide a snapshot into the life and health of an organism. As researchers are discovering, the metabolome — the collection of several thousands of metabolites found in a biological sample — can tell us a lot about the organism as whole.
With its potential for insight into the health of the human body, metabolomics has many applications. For example, Edison’s lab has been collaborating with University of Florida scientists on a series of studies on Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The researchers are looking at samples of patients’ metabolomes to identify patterns that could serve as an early diagnostic. In the future, such knowledge might allow therapeutic invention before a patient gets sick and help doctors know if a treatment is working.
Edison’s lab focuses primarily on an organism called Caenorhabditis elegans, a small nematode (aka worm) that has been studied extensively over the past decades. Scientists’ knowledge of the worm’s basic biology makes it a good candidate for investigating topics that are still unknown — in this case, the role that metabolomics plays in development and behavior.
Because many potential metabolites remain unlabeled, Edison and his team are seeking to identify more metabolites and add them to the “known” list. By studying the metabolome of C. elegans — including hundreds of genetic strains of C. elegans that exist in the wild, or have been developed for other projects — Edison’s lab can learn more about metabolites that exist in all life.
Edison’s main analytical tool is Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) — a technique similar to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in most hospitals — that provides an atomic-level view of molecules in a biological sample. In Edison’s lab, the samples are usually fluids from people or other animals, plants or microbes that they are studying. With worms, they examine metabolites that are naturally released for communication or a liquid extract made of the worms themselves.
In collaboration with engineers at the National High Magnetic Field Lab, Edison’s team also developed some advanced NMR technology. NMR works by placing a biological sample into a probe, which is then positioned in the center of a powerful magnetic field. Traditionally, probes are made of copper wire; with the NHMFL, Edison’s lab helped to create more sensitive probes from a super-conductive material. This enables stronger signals and more biological information from the samples. Over the next couple years, similar advanced instrumentation will be installed at UGA’s NMR facility.
Another key technique pioneered by Edison and his team is the use of 13C, a carbon isotope that offers researchers the improved ability to identify individual metabolites by NMR as well as mass spectrometry. These techniques, combined with the more sensitive NMR instruments, are enabling a new approach to metabolomics – better data, gathered faster.
The next big frontier in healthcare is precision medicine, or therapeutic treatments tailored to an individual’s genetics, environment, and lifestyle. The human metabolome will likely play a major role in helping doctors assess the right treatment for a particular patient. Edison’s research on metabolites, and what they can tell us about human health, is helping drive those advances forward.
- Metabolomics as a means to understanding the chemical basis of behavior
- Small molecules in the development of Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) and other nematodes
- Nuclear magnetic resonance techniques and instrumentation
Straight from the Scholar
The NMR facility at UGA is world-famous, with some of the best instrumentation around. That’s incredibly valuable, and it was an immediate attraction. The Georgia Research Alliance is a very special group and was a major reason for a move. There’s nothing quite like the GRA in Florida. The Complex Carbohydrate Research Center at UGA is internationally respected, and several groups at UGA, including the Institute of Bioinformatics played big roles in my decision to move.