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#IAmScience Zhentian Lei


By Becca Wolf | Bond LSC

Columbia has been very different than Ardmore, Oklahoma, for Zhentian Lei. But the move from the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a nonprofit agricultural research center, to Bond Life Sciences Center has been a good one for the researcher.

“I like it here much better,” Lei said. “The town that we used to live in Oklahoma is very small and at least 100 miles from other universities. So, it wasn’t convenient to collaborate or visit other labs. It’s not like here where you can just walk across the campus to another building and talk to other researchers.”

Lei first came to MU five years ago when the Lloyd Sumner lab moved here.

“The most attractive thing is that there are so many PI’s and research groups on campus that you can work with,” Lei said. “Our previous institute was a nonprofit research institute that focused on agriculture, and we have done a lot of agriculture and plant science work, but now we have people working in animals, medicine, etc. that we can collaborate with. That opens an exciting window for us, we can have a lot more collaborations and opportunities.”

Here at Bond LSC, Lei is the assistant director of the University of Missouri Metabolomics Center and assistant research professor of biochemistry. On the second floor of Bond LSC, he and other researchers perform targeted and non-targeted metabolite profiling on samples such as plant tissues, cancer tissues, and blood samples. These small molecules are the product of chemical reactions in cells, and their study gives us a window into how cells in the body or in a plant contribute to an organism’s inner workings or diseases.

Lei and researchers in the center analyze samples to figure out what changed in response to things such as treatments and drugs. As assistant director, Lei is responsible for maintenance and making sure that the machines are working.

“When you exercise or when you eat something different, your metabolism would change in response to those things, so the differences are important and we analyze them on a daily basis,” Lei said.

Lei also conducts research of his own. He mostly collaborates with principal investigators (PIs) on campus on method development.

“If we want to analyze something that we have not done before, we have to develop a method. We have to try to make sure that we can detect and quantify correctly without any doubt,” Lei said.

Lei first became interested in metabolomics as he was going through school.

“Metabolites in plants are different. If you taste a banana, the taste will be different from an apple, which is also different from a pineapple, so the differences are caused by secondary metabolites in the plants or in the fruits. They each have their unique set of metabolites,” Lei said. “It is very fascinating when you don’t know what you’re looking at and you want to know why it is the way it is. It’s fascinating and satisfying to be able to quantify and detect the differences.”

While Lei has a good system going in the MU Metabolomics Center currently, he hopes to get some instrument grants from federal funding agencies to update some of the instruments.

“We depend on high-tech instruments to detect compounds and quantify them. If you don’t have those techniques, or if our instruments aren’t ready, you cannot really do much,” Lei said. “In the center we have several high GCMS and LCMS that cost like half a million for one instrument. It is way more expensive than my car.”

GCMS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) is an analytical method that identifies substances within a test sample and is commonly used in drug detection, forensics, and identification of unknown samples.

LCMS (Liquid chromatography mass spectrometry) on the other hand is an analytical chemistry technique combining the physical separation capabilities of liquid chromatography with the mass analysis capabilities of mass spectrometry. This system is popular in chemical analysis and can be applied in many areas such as biotechnology, environment monitoring, and agrochemical industries.

Having these be up-to-date is important for Bond LSC, and Lei is doing as much as he can to keep them in good order.

“If you don’t have good instruments and you cannot provide good results, researchers may go to other places for services,” Lei said.

Despite working with these challenges, Lei is happy that he is at Bond LSC.

“I really like it here,” Lei said. “The town, the university, and the climate on campus really focuses on researchers, and that is really a plus for us.”

Article originally published on Decoding Science.