The study of biological systems in a holistic manner (systems biology) is increasingly being viewed as a necessity to provide qualitative and quantitative descriptions of the emergent properties of the complete system. Systems biology performs studies focussed on the complex interactions of system components; emphasising the whole system rather than the individual parts. Many perturbations to mammalian systems (diet, disease, drugs) are multi-factorial and the study of small parts of the system is insufficient to understand the complete phenotypic changes induced. Metabolomics is one functional level tool being employed to investigate the complex interactions of metabolites with other metabolites (metabolism) but also the regulatory role metabolites provide through interaction with genes, transcripts and proteins (e.g. allosteric regulation). Technological developments are the driving force behind advances in scientific knowledge. Recent advances in the two analytical platforms of mass spectrometry (MS) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy have driven forward the discipline of metabolomics. In this critical review, an introduction to metabolites, metabolomes, metabolomics and the role of MS and NMR spectroscopy will be provided. The applications of metabolomics in mammalian systems biology for the study of the health–disease continuum, drug efficacy and toxicity and dietary effects on mammalian health will be reviewed. The current limitations and future goals of metabolomics in systems biology will also be discussed (374 references).
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