Exploring the Use of Gas Chromatography Coupled to Chemical Ionization Mass Spectrometry (GC-CI-MS) for Stable Isotope Labelling in Metabolomics

Isotopic labelling experiments have been utterly valuable to monitor the flux of metabolic reactions in biological systems, which is crucial to understand homeostatic alterations with disease. Experimental determination of metabolic fluxes can be inferred from a characteristic rearrangement of stable isotope tracers (e.g., 13C or 15N) that can be detected by mass spectrometry (MS). Metabolites measured are generally members of well-known metabolic pathways, and most of them can be detected using both gas chromatography (GC)-MS and liquid chromatography (LC)-MS. In here, we show that GC methods coupled to chemical ionization (CI) MS have a clear advantage over alternative methodologies due to GC’s superior chromatography separation efficiency and the fact that CI is a soft ionization technique that yields identifiable protonated molecular ion peaks. We tested diverse GC-CI-MS setups, including methane and isobutane reagent gases, triple quadrupole (QqQ) MS in SIM mode or selected ion clusters using optimized narrow-windows (~10 Da) in scan mode, and standard full scan methods using high resolution GC-(q)TOF and GC-Orbitrap systems. Isobutane as reagent gas in combination with both low-resolution (LR) and high-resolution (HR) MS showed the best performance, enabling precise detection of isotopologues in most metabolic intermediates of central carbon metabolism. Finally, with the aim of overcoming manual operations, we developed an R-based tool called isoSCAN that automatically quantifies all isotopologues of intermediate metabolites of glycolysis, TCA cycle, amino acids, pentose phosphate pathway and urea cycle from LRMS and HRMS data.