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Future is Bright for Time of Flight

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There was a palpable buzz in the air at the annual conference of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry back in May. More than 4,200 mass spec vendors and scientists seemed genuinely thrilled to be spending their Memorial Day weekend in the basement of the Chicago Hyatt — even after the first round of late-night “hospitality suites” infected the hotel’s hallways with a distinct fraternity-house odor.

Despite this being the 49th such meeting, the society has been experiencing something of a rebirth. After years of steady seven percent growth, ASMS attendance spiked 20 percent in 2000 and an additional 18 percent this year. It’s a safe bet that it’s due to the proteome.

ASMS doesn’t track its membership or meeting attendance by industry group, so it can’t attribute the increasing numbers to life sciences with certainty, but evidence was abundant. Proteomics positions dominated on job boards; lecture halls were standing-room-only when the topic was proteins (a crowd was spellbound by Vanderbilt researcher Pierre Chaurand’s explanation of his work mapping proteins in epididymis tissue); the majority of posters depicted proteomic research; and those on booth duty for the big manufacturers — Applied Biosystems, Bruker Daltonics, Micromass, Thermo Finnigan, Shimadzu — were all too happy to talk proteomics. Smaller guys such as Ciphergen and Stanford Research Systems didn’t bother talking anything but.

Catherine Costello, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the Boston University Medical School who chaired the ASMS conference program, points to other anecdotal evidence of the explosion of interest in mass spec applications for proteomics: attendance at preconference workshops and user meetings is way up. New entrants to the field are eager to learn, and virtually all of them are applying mass spec to proteomes.

Robert Cotter, past ASMS president and author of “Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry: Instrumentation and Applications in Biological Research,” adds that while attendance climbs, the number of papers being submitted for the annual meeting remains stable — an indication that the new folks are there to learn.

Bruker Daltonics confirmed the outlook for mass spec applications to proteomics with its quarterly earnings statement last month: bookings for life-science systems were up 25 percent over a year ago. John Wronka, Bruker VP and general manager, says that while genomics users make up a greater portion of his life sciences MALDI-TOF customers, proteomics business is expanding more quickly. Judging by the numbers of people coming in for demos of his instruments, Wronka says, “the proteomics market for mass spec now is where genomics was three or four years ago.”

While outfits such as Bruker and ASMS have proteomics to thank for all the new business, Wronka points out that what proteomics researchers have to thank is software. “The fact that we can create the informatics tools is what helped drive the proteomics technology,” he says. Had there not been the potential to analyze high-throughput mass spec data, few would invest the energy to generate it. We figure tools this revolutionary deserve their own buzzword. Hence, proteinformatics.

 

Adrienne J. Burke, Editor-in-Chief

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