Untargeted metabolomics aims to quantify the complete set of metabolites within a biological system, most commonly by liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS). Since nearly the inception of the field, compound identification has been widely recognized as the rate-limiting step of the experimental workflow. In spite of exponential increases in the size of metabolomic databases, which now contain experimental MS/MS spectra for over a half a million reference compounds, chemical structures still cannot be confidently assigned to many signals in a typical LC/MS dataset. The purpose of this Perspective is to consider why identification rates continue to be low in untargeted metabolomics. One rationalization is that many naturally occurring metabolites detected by LC/MS are true "novel"compounds that have yet to be incorporated into metabolomic databases. An alternative possibility, however, is that research data do not provide database matches because of informatic artifacts, chemical contaminants, and signal redundancies. Increasing evidence suggests that, for at least some sample types, many unidentifiable signals in untargeted metabolomics result from the latter rather than new compounds originating from the specimen being measured. The implications of these observations on chemical discovery in untargeted metabolomics are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9097-9105
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number20
StatePublished - May 20 2020


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