Beyond Baseball: Other Applications of Mass Spectrometry

­Drug testing is just one application of mass spectrometry. Almost every scientif­ic discipline relies on the analytical technique for pure or applied research. Consider these examples:

  • Astronomers use mass spectrometry to determine the elements and isotopes found in the solar wind. For example, the mass spectrum of solar wind reveals that the following elements are common: carbon (12 amu), oxygen (16 amu), neon (20 amu), magnesium (24 amu), silicon (28 amu) and iron (56 amu).
  • Environmental scientists use mass spectrometry to detect toxins in contaminated fish. They can also use the technique to measure the amount and nature of airborne particles in the atmosphere, data that can be used to monitor climate change.
  • Biologists use mass spectrometry to identify the structures of complex biological molecules, such as carbohydrates, proteins and nucleic acids. For example, virologists have used a spectrometer to gain a deeper understanding of how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) assembles itself in a host cell.
  • Anesthesiologists use mass spectrometry during surgery to measure the metabolic gas exchange of their patients. The technique enables them to determine the respiratory quotient, or the volume of carbon dioxide produced divided by the volume of oxygen consumed, which indicates that the patient's cells are getting enough oxygen and eliminating enough carbon dioxide to remain healthy.
  • Geologists use mass spectrometry to locate oil deposits by measuring petroleum precursors in rock. And paleontologists rely on spectrometers for carbon dating, which requires the measurement of carbon-12 and carbon-14 isotopes in a sample to determine the sample's age.

­Of course, those applications don't attract as many headlines as a sports star testing positive for steroid use. Such headlines may become even more common as the techniques of mass spectrometry improve. Scientists at Purdue University and Tsinghua University in Beijing have recently developed a faster, more sensitive test for anabolic steroids. The test combines tandem mass spectrometry with an ionization technique known as reactive desorption electrospray ionization. Using these techniques, the scientists can identify seven types of anabolic steroids in a single drop of urine and do it at a rate of one sample per second. Perhaps this will finally put a nail in the coffin of baseball's Steroid Era.