Gas Chromatography for Fatty Acid Analysis

Jack McAlhany, Wofford College


In applying to College of Charleston REU at Grice Marine Laboratory, I assumed I would be researching the well-being of a local fishery or the biomechanics of an organism in response to different variables, but this was not the case. My research to this point has not focused on a living organism, but rather tiny portions of blood plasma that we vaporize into a gas to determine the basic constituents of the blood. A solid understanding of chemical structures, or a wild imagination, is necessary for this research because unlike working with live samples, our desired product is not visible. To give you a better understanding, the fatty acids we are detecting have between 8 and 24 carbon atoms while a 70 kg human has approximately 7X10^26 carbon atoms (Kross, B.).

In order to detect such tiny fat molecules I am using a gas chromatography with a flame ionization detector (GC-FID). This instrument converts a liquid sample to a gas that then travels through a 100 meter column with an inert gas carrier. The time at which certain samples exit the column is reproducible, so the retention time in the column is a way to determine which fatty acids are in a blood plasma sample (E.T.S. Laboratories).


Figure 1: In a GC-FID, a sample (red) is vaporized in a vaporizing column (blue) and an inert gas carrier is the “liquid” phase that carries the vaporized fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) through a 100 meter column (gold). This column has a stationary phase that interacts differently with each FAME, causing the FAME’s to exit the column at different times. The detector responds to compounds that form ions when combusted in the hydrogen-air flame. This response is converted to electrical signals and produce a gas chromatogram we can analyze (E.T.S. Laboratories).

These retention times are represented on a gas chromatogram, which consists of peaks of varying sizes (Figure 2). Each fatty acid interacts in a unique, but constant, way with the stationary phase of the column, so fatty acid peaks are in the same order and have the relatively same retention time every trial. This constant retention time allows us to determine the fatty acid composition of a sample. Not only can we find the blood plasma fatty acid composition, but by analyzing the area under each peak, we can determine the concentration of each fatty acid in the blood. The concentration of each fatty acid or relationships in these concentrations hopefully will provide a biomarker that we can test in the field for the fatty acid disease, pansteatitis.


Figure 2: Gas Chromatogram of 19 fatty acids. Each peak is labeled with its corresponding fatty acid (Christie W. 2011).


I would like to thank the College of Charleston for this internship, the National Science Foundation for funding, and Dr. John Bowden for his guidance as a mentor.

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Works Cited

Christie, W. 2011. Gas Chromatography and Lipids. The Oily Press” Chapter 10.

E.T.S. Laboratories$GCP

Kross, B. Questions and Answers. Jefferson Lab.


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