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Marine Environmental Metabolomics


NIST is developing NMR-based metabolomics for use as a tool to expand research on the impacts of environmental stressors on marine organisms. The novel biology of non-model organisms in the marine environment, coupled with the wide array of stressors, ranging from physical changes in the environment to challenges from industrial and urban pollution, requires investigations that can provide a 'discovery' aspect as well as larger scale monitoring efforts.

This project leverages the skills and resources of the Hollings Marine Laboratory (HML) partnership that includes researchers with expertise and experience on the biology of a wide variety of marine organisms from microbes to marine mammals coupled with unique high-field nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). The application of metabolomics techniques which have enjoyed widespread application in human health research to marine environmental research presents a novel opportunity to influence and contribute to new understanding of non-target organism systems biology, to the development of new tools for environmental modeling and risk assessment, to the enhancement of multivariate measurement protocols and standards and to the development of ecosystem-scale bio-measurement strategies.


The detailed understanding of many marine organisms is insufficient for advancing environmental research, especially when compared to the knowledge we have about model organisms such as mice and rats and to the experience we have with human biology and medicine. Through the development of metabolomic techniques, better knowledge of non-model marine organisms can lead to more comprehensive understanding of impacts like pollution or physical environmental change. Applying these techniques to environmental research offers the opportunity for value-added insights and new approaches in environmental impact assessments, environmental modeling and basic understanding of the dramatically different biology of marine organisms.

A small number of labs throughout the world are in a position to conduct these types of studies, and because of the nature of NMR-based metabolomics studies, important contributions to systems biology through synergy with proteomics and genomics studies are possible.

Major Accomplishments

  • Coordinated an international intercomparison exercise for environmental metabolomics involving seven laboratories on four continents.
  • Conducted microbial metabolomics study involving the temperature-dependent coral pathogen, Vibrio coralliilyticus.     
  • Conducted multistressor exposures and metabolomic analysis involving the Atlantic blue crab, Callinectes sapidus.


  1. N. Morrison, D. Bearden, J. G. Bundy, T. Collette, F. Currie, M. P. Davey, N. S. Haigh, D. Hancock, O. A. H. Jones, S. Rochfort, S. A. Sansone, D. Stys, Q. Teng, D. Field, M. R. Viant: Standard Reporting Requirements for Biological Samples in Metabolomics Experiments: Environmental Context, Metabolomics3: 203-210 (2007).
  2. J. E. Oatis, Jr., P. Brunsfeld, J. W. Rushing, P. D. Moeller, D. W. Bearden, T. N. Gallien, and G. Cooper, IV: Simplified Isolation and Purification of Cyclopamine from Veratrum californicum, Chemistry Central Journal. 2(12): On-line (2008).
  3. M. R. Viant, D. W. Bearden, J. G. Bundy, I. W. Burton, T. W. Collette, D. R. Ekman, V. Ezernieks, T. K. Karakach, C. Yu Lin, S. Rochfort, J. S. de Ropp, Q. Teng, R. S. Tjeerdema, J. A. Walter, and H. Wu: International NMR-Based Environmental Metabolomics Intercomparison Exercise, Environmental Science & Technology, 43(1), 219-225 (2009).
  4. B. A. Neely, D. W. Bearden, A. J. Sutter, E. C. Pollock, N. J. Kabengi, P. M. Bertsch, and P. J. Morris: Cytotoxicity of Engineered ZnO Nanoparticles to Burkholderia vietnamiensis PR1301: Comparison to Zn2+ and the Effects of Counter-ion Utilization, Submitted to Environmental Science & Technology (2009).
  5. T. B. Schock, K. G. Burnett, L. E. Burnett, L. Thibodeaux, D. A. Stancyk, D. W. Bearden: Metabolomic Analysis of Atlantic Blue Crab, Callinectes sapidus, Hemolymph Following Oxidative Stress, in preparation.
  6. A. F. B. Boroujerdi, A. Meyers, E. C. Pollock, S. L. Huynh, M. Vizcaino, P. J. Morris, and D. W. Bearden: NMR-Based Microbial Metabolomics and the temperature-dependent coral pathogen Vibrio coralliilyticus, in preparation.

The Hollings Marine Laboratory NMR Facility began operations in 2006 and NIST initiated activities supporting NMR-based metabolomics research in 2007. Staffing was expanded in 2008 and subsequently a number of studies have been initiated, including marine microbial metabolomics and crustacean metabolomics. Additional studies are being planned which include aquaculture dietary studies and further laboratory exposures with non-model organisms. Results of one international intercomparison study have been published, and subsequent activities related to improving and systematizing practice for environmental metabolomics studies are planned. Development of reference materials for environmental metabolomics is planned.

Created March 28, 2009, Updated April 8, 2021