mass spectrometryI think we all know what St. Valentine’s Day is all about. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is about love. I am a happily married man, but Lord help me if I forget to buy my wife a fine bunch of flowers and take her out for a finer dinner on or about St. Valentine’s Day.

But do you know who St. Valentine was? Does anybody? Wikipedia to the rescue! St. Valentine was a 3rd-century Roman saint associated with courtly love ever since the Middle Ages. However, very little is actually known about him. The feast of St. Valentine was first established by Pope Gelasius the first (what a name!) in 496 A.D., but even then, and so long ago, the deed or deeds that earned him his sainthood were not known. Possibly St. Valentine was martyred.

Whoever he was, how did he become associated with love? Well, again, we don’t really know. It looks like many of the stories or legends associated with St. Valentine were actually invented in the 14th century in England by authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, famous for his Canterbury Tales. It seems that we know when Valentine became synonymous with romantic love, but not much more.

So quite possibly, St. Valentine is a bit of a fraud when it comes to matters of the heart. Never mind, it’s the thought that counts.

Competing Affections

Well, I am a lucky man. I have four healthy, happy, bright children and a wonderful wife, but I think my wife gets jealous occasionally of the other love in my life. She may have grounds to so be. For the first time in public I have a confession to make. I love mass spectrometry and mass spectrometry loves me. A strange and machine-like love, you might think. Well, yes. You have me there. However, perhaps you too can fall in love with mass spectrometry when you learn more about it and create a jealous partner. Something to aim for!

What is mass spectrometry and why would Saint Valentine want a mass spectrometer if he were a scientist alive today?

Mass Spectrometry: How it Works

At its fundamental level, mass spectrometry (usually shortened to mass spec or MS) is one of the most powerful analytical techniques in modern areas of biology and chemistry available to scientists and technicians today. Three Nobel prizes have been awarded for developments in mass spectrometry since its inception in the early part of the 20th century. Mass spec measures the mass of a protein, chemical compound, lipid, etc. More correctly, it measures the mass/charge (m/z), as part of the process involved in mass spectrometry is adding or taking away a charge to the compound under study. Once the compound is positively or negatively charged and is in the gas phase it can be detected and measured in the mass spectrometer. So in short, if a compound can be charged it can be measured in a mass spectrometer. See below for a short animation on the basics of mass spec.

 

 

If its mass can be determined, then the compound can be identified and the actual amount of the compound in the sample you are studying can be accurately measured. Types of samples could be, for example, blood, urine, water, soil, some kind of food and so on. I recently wrote about a kind of mass spectrometer called the Orbitrap mass analyser.

‘Why should I be interested in mass spec?’ you might ask yourself. Go on. Ask yourself. The answer I think is pretty simple. You probably don’t realise just what a large part in your life mass spec is already playing. Take a deep breath and try reading the next paragraph out loud. I dare you! Good luck. This is going to take a while.

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Common Uses of Mass Spectrometry

Mass spec is used to check that your drinking water isn’t contaminated with chemicals, that your fruits and vegetables aren’t full of pesticides, herbicides and fungal toxins (mycotoxins), to determine the flavour ingredients in food and beverages, that you are receiving the correct dose of a drug when you are ill (therapeutic drug monitoring), to screen for degradation of artificial hips, to look for occupational exposure to toxic trace elements such as lead or chromium, to measure nutritional status of patients in hospitals, that newborn babies don’t suffer from certain genetic illnesses, that you are not deficient in vitamin D, that you are not abusing drugs in the workplace or while you drive your car, to help determine if a drug under development by a pharmaceutical company is safe to be used by you and me, to investigate criminal cases of various kinds, to detect wine fraud, to detect explosives(!), to discover and measure biomarkers of disease that could enable early diagnosis and better treatment,  it is starting to be used (although very early days) in precision or personalised medicine to determine, for example, what is the best treatment for an individual suffering from cancer, it is starting to be used during surgery to remove a tumour to determine exactly where the surgeon should cut and should not cut, it is used to identify bacteria in patients in hospitals suffering from infection.

Do you think that was a long list? It could have been much longer! Last one for now. Mass spec is used exhaustively in the field of proteomics by academics and clinical researchers around the world. The study of the proteome (your genome is your complement of genes while your proteome is the expressed proteins that are made from your RNA, which is made from your DNA) enables better understanding of the fundamental nature of how the bacterial and mammalian cell works and in many, many other areas of the life sciences.

Actually, I dared you to read that out loud. I just read that aloud and I couldn’t do it on a single breath. Ah well, I thought I was fit.

You Can Fall in Love with Mass Spec, Too!

Mass spectrometry is a key technology in the modern world and I think it highly likely that far more than 99% of the world’s population have never even heard of it. If you have read this far then you are one of the few people who do know something about one of the most powerful analytical technologies the world has ever known. Thank you.

Francis Aston invented the first proper, working mass spectrometer (J.J. Thompson did earlier work) and won the Nobel Prize in 1922 for his work on isotopes. I wonder if he imagined that mass spectrometry about a hundred years later would have such a universal presence in analytical labs?

So why should St. Valentine want a mass spectrometer? Take your pick. Mass spec can do almost anything.

Additional Resources

Learn more about the many types of mass spectrometry and some of the ways it impacts your life.

To learn more about how mass spectrometry and other analytical techniques are applied to protecting the environment, diagnostics & healthcare, forensics, food safety, in the pharmaceutical industry and more, go to thermoscientific.com and then visit a community page.

If you enjoyed the mass spec animation, ‘like’ it and then I will know to make more animations that help to explain how mass spectrometry can help to make the world a healthier, cleaner and safer place.