Motivation: Typical GC-MS-based metabolite profiling experiments may comprise hundreds of chromatogram files, which each contain up to 1000 mass spectral tags (MSTs). MSTs are the characteristic patterns of similar to 25-250 fragment ions and respective isotopomers, which are generated after gas chromatography (GC) by electron impact ionization (EI) of the separated chemical molecules. These fragment ions are subsequently detected by time-of-flight (TOF) mass spectrometry (MS). MSTs of profiling experiments are typically reported as a list of ions, which are characterized by mass, chromatographic retention index (RI) or retention time (RT), and arbitrary abundance. The first two parameters allow the identification, the later the quantification of the represented chemical compounds. Many software tools have been reported for the pre-processing, the so-called curve resolution and deconvolution, of GC-(EI-TOF)-MS files. Pre-processing tools generate numerical data matrices, which contain all aligned MSTs and samples of an experiment. This process, however, is error prone mainly due to (i) the imprecise RI or RT alignment of MSTs and (ii) the high complexity of biological samples. This complexity causes co-elution of compounds and as a consequence non-selective, in other words impure MSTs. The selection and validation of optimal fragment ions for the specific and selective quantification of simultaneously eluting compounds is, therefore, mandatory. Currently validation is performed in most laboratories under human supervision. So far no software tool supports the non-targeted and user-independent quality assessment of the data matrices prior to statistical analysis. TagFinder may fill this gap.
Strategy: TagFinder facilitates the analysis of all fragment ions, which are observed in GC-(EI-TOF)-MS profiling experiments. The non-targeted approach allows the discovery of novel and unexpected compounds. In addition, mass isotopomer resolution is maintained by TagFinder processing. This feature is essential for metabolic flux analyses and highly useful, but not required for metabolite profiling. Whenever possible, TagFinder gives precedence to chemical means of standardization, for example, the use of internal reference compounds for retention time calibration or quantitative standardization. In addition, external standardization is supported for both compound identification and calibration. The workflow of TagFinder comprises, (i) the import of fragment ion data, namely mass, time and arbitrary abundance (intensity), from a chromatography file interchange format or from peak lists provided by other chromatogram pre-processing software, (ii) the annotation of sample information and grouping of samples into classes, (iii) the RI calculation, (iv) the binning of observed fragment ions of equal mass from different chromatograms into RI windows, (v) the combination of these bins, so-called mass tags, into time groups of co-eluting fragment ions, (vi) the test of time groups for intensity correlated mass tags, (vii) the data matrix generation and (viii) the extraction of selective mass tags supported by compound identification. Thus, TagFinder supports both non-targeted fingerprinting analyses and metabolite targeted profiling.