This summer I worked on a metabolomics project surrounding the effects that hypoxia, or deficient oxygenation, has on oxidative stress and inflammation. I used metabolomics, or the study of the functional molecules in the body, to interpret the molecular changes that eventually lead to physiological complications. Currently, we know that oxylipins, biological molecules that are metabolized from polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), are markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in conditions such as hypoxia (1). My lab extracted venous plasma from fetal and newborn sheep that were living at high-altitudes, as hypoxic conditions can be simulated by high-altitude living. By running tests that quantified the oxylipins in fetuses and newborns, I was able to distinguish which metabolites were prominently affected by hypoxic conditions. Later, I was able to find pathways, tracing how certain PUFAs were metabolized and from which PUFAs certain oxylipins were derived. Based on these relationships, I aimed to find possible roots for the oxidative stress and inflammation caused by chronic hypoxia.
These findings highlight our understanding of lipid metabolism as it is affected by high-altitude hypoxia. This study has the potential to help us develop treatments that target inflammatory pathways induced by pre and post-natal hypoxia. For instance, the enzymatic pathway CYP, which metabolizes PUFAs proved to play a large role in the production of oxylipins that were affected by hypoxia. Targeting this pathway early in the womb may help prevent lung dysfunction that may develop just after birth.
An area in my research that I found difficult was the dense literature. At first sight, it was intimidating‒ scientific jargon and compound nomenclature most of all. I realized that as I started connecting terms to function‒ associating oxylipins with potential roles in the body was now feasible. The truth is, it takes time and understanding to grasp the material, but the more I read and the more I searched, the less intimidating it all felt. Around the lab, there are several skills to master‒ several of which consist of success and failure. For instance, I had a hard time developing networks for my metabolites and working with statistical software early on in my research; this is now something I wish to improve. Often, I received results from my data that I did not expect and it reminded me how difficult it was to remain impartial. I ran into a list of questions that, over time, clarified and narrowed what in fact my research would delineate.
I could summarize the life of a scientist in one word: unpredictable. It surprised me how difficult consistency actually was with data. That being said, it is a huge task to filter data and focus on only a few aspects of it; everything seemed important. Moreover, a reliable, cooperative lab team is a vital component to a scientist’s life in the lab. While not everyone is specialized in the same subject or project, a team creates a supportive environment where we feed off of one another’s knowledge and work in collaboration for the interest of science.
- Gabbs M, Leng S, Devassy JG, Monirujjaman M, Aukema HM. Advances in Our Understanding of Oxylipins Derived from Dietary PUFAs. Adv Nutr 6: 513–540, 2015.