New approaches to promote the use of magnets-free NMR for analysis in chemistry, biology, and medicine

The diverse work of Mainz-based physicists in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance is being boosted by a new highly application-oriented approach: In October 2020, Dr. Danila Barskiy will join Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) to set up a group focusing on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, the objective being to explore approaches that do not require magnetic fields for chemical, biological, and medical applications. To do so, he has been awarded a Sofja Kovalevskaja Award worth EUR 1.6 million by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. “We are very pleased that Danila Barskiy and his research have been honored in this way. His work not only covers new and previously unexplored aspects, but also excellently complements research we are already undertaking here in Mainz,” said Professor Dmitry Budker, Barskiy’s host at the Institute of Physics at JGU and at the Helmholtz Institute Mainz (HIM).

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is a standard analytical technique used to study the structure and dynamics of materials and living objects. With its sister technology Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), NMR spectroscopy is used in organic chemistry, biochemistry, and medicine with fluids being positioned particularly well to this type of analysis. However, NMR spectroscopy is reaching its limits: Due to the weak interaction between atomic nuclei and the applied magnetic field, signals produced by NMR-active nuclei are typically extremely low and, therefore, require high magnetic fields for detection. This rules out the possibility of developing portable point-of-care devices, among other things.

Researchers aim to develop compact and portable NMR devices

Sofja Kovalevskaja Award winner Dr. Danila Barskiy has been looking at ways of improving NMR spectroscopy for around ten years, most recently at the University of California, Berkeley, from where he will be making the transition to Mainz. He is pursuing various approaches with the aim of designing compact and portable NMR devices that will ultimately be as small as a chip and affordable for wide analytical markets. According to Barskiy, the problem is the following: “Despite improvements being made, most NMR systems are still not compact because they need field strengths of several Tesla in order to distinguish between the chemical signatures in an NMR spectrum.”

Barskiy’s new interdisciplinary group will focus on developing miniaturized, portable NMR sensors. These sensors would employ the principle of zero to ultra-low field magnetic resonance, or ZULF NMR for short, using optically pumped magnetometers which would not require any strong magnetic fields. In addition to applications in chemical and biomedical research, such sensors could find use for detecting metabolic disorders at an early stage.

By heading up a work group at Mainz, Barskiy also wants to develop hyperpolarizers for benchtop NMR spectrometers. Hyperpolarization improves the alignment of nuclear spins in a sample, thereby amplifying their NMR signals. The scientist predicts that application-specific hyperpolarizers for tabletop NMR devices may be soon available and that they will be about the size of a coffee machine. And with a tabletop NMR device, it will be possible to perform highly sensitive analyses of fuels, biofluids such as blood or urine, and food extracts. “This will democratize NMR spectroscopy by providing access to wider audiences and will accelerate technological progress in developing countries,” Barskiy emphasized.

Long-standing collaboration with experts from UC Berkeley paves the way for new research

This represents another positive result of the collaboration between UC Berkeley, in particular the laboratory of Professor Alexander Pines, and the Mainz group led by Professor Dmitry Budker. “We have been working very productively with Professor Pines and his team, including Dr. Barskiy, for many years and developed ZULF NMR together,” said Budker. “Danila Barskiy was one of the first to recognize the importance of this research in the biological and medical context.” Budker points out that Barskiy’s plans fit perfectly with the work being done at Mainz, which is also being pursued as part of the European Union’s ZULF NMR Marie Curie Innovative Training Network together with other European partners.

Danila Barskiy studied at Novosibirsk State University and earned a doctorate in physical chemistry for his research at the International Tomography Center (ITC SB RAS). In 2015, he began working as a postdoc at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and subsequently joined Professor Alexander Pines’ team at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017. “The conditions in Mainz are unique for me. The planned collaborations and the resources available fit perfectly with the projects I am pursuing. Thanks to the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, I can not only begin an independent research career, the multidisciplinary research in Germany is promoted as a whole,” emphasized Barskiy.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation gave the 2020 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award to eight international research talents aged between 29 and 36 years. It is one of the most richly endowed research awards in Germany and provides young researchers with venture capital for innovative projects at an early stage in their careers. They undertake research for up to five years at German universities and research institutions and build up their own work groups at their host institutes. The award is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).





We are, simply, chemical reactions

I have recently read this article and it was well discussed how scientists keep discovering new interesting and important facts about our gastrointestinal tract and its effect on our wellbeing (including decision making and brain function).

For example, it has been shown that if people eat more galactooligosaccharide, the fraction of bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in the gut increases among all other strains (because metabolism of these bacteria takes advantage of the excess of this chemical, a known prebiotic). At the same time, these particular strains of bacteria have been shown to produce certain neurotransmitters — chemicals that participate in our brain functioning (because neurotransmitters are responsible for the transmission of electrical signals between neurons). It is indeed possible that by eating certain types of food you can overproduce certain neurotransmitters and, therefore, influence your brain functioning — through bacteria in the gut (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Feeding healthy volunteers with galactooligosaccharide resulted in the increased population of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in the gut which, in turn, resulted in overproduction of neurotransmitters that affect anxiety, including one called brain-derived neurotrophic factor [1].

What is even cooler, some bacteria have shown to affect people’s mood (possibly, by increasing production of “happiness hormones”, in other words, chemicals responsible for our social behavior). This is reasonable because happy people are more social which leads to a big evolutionary advance for these bacteria: they would obviously tend to spread better between social humans than between loners. Interesting, isn’t it?

Let’s now think about it in an evolutionary context. Do bacteria in the gut understand that they change the social behavior of their hosts? The answer is – NO. They not only don’t know anything about social behavior, but they also don’t know that they have a host and even that they exist! Bacteria are simply self-sustaining chemical reactions capable of changing (mutating) their chemical dynamics. It is not that bacteria have goals to survive, they simply occur. One random mutation in their genome led to the overexpression of a random chemical which, by a myriad of other complicated chemical transformations led to the increase of a random neurotransmitter which, by accident, tended to affect social behavior of their hosts. Now, the bacteria have started to spread faster and still spread “happily” because these chemical dynamics help them to exist or, simply, to occur.

We, humans, are chemical reactions too. All hopes and dreams in our brains are interactions between atoms, molecules and their collections. We just tend to occur because it is evolutionary logical. Our mood is chemistry too: serotonin is happiness, dopamine is pleasure, noradrenaline is concentration (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The structures of neurotransmitters and their common effects on the mood, concentration, and learning.

So, if all of this is chemistry, then how to study this? Are there techniques that would allow us to investigate gut microbiome and its effect on the brain non-invasively and in real time?

I believe the answer is yes. Non-invasive techniques like NMR and MRI will soon be able to help to answer important questions about gut metabolism with hyperpolarization being one of the main tools to achieve this. The main challenge – fast decay of polarization – will be overcome by using nuclear states that can preserve their “memory” on a timescale of hours. Remarkably, there are already reports on the long-lived hyperpolarized nuclear spin states [2-4]! Long-live the gut! 😉

[1] “When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function” bDavid Kohn.




My “Dream Research” Project

If I was asked to identify the most challenging biological question, I would answer immediately. What is the nature of memory and thought? This question always fascinated me as a child. For a long time, I thought only biologists can figure that out. It took me 10 years deeply studying physics and chemistry, becoming a specialist in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to realize that actually now we are close to start answering the question which captivated my childish mind.


Metabolic Metro Map. The image is taken from Wikipedia.


With all its complexity, the end result of the genetic machinery is to affect the chemistry of the body. Small molecules, metabolites, serve as fingerprints of what is happening inside us. Studying metabolites is almost like looking at someone’s apartment and coming up with a story of their recent lives: we can make guesses about a lifestyle based on what we see! And the chemistry of thinking is not an exception – our thought processes are accompanied by myriads of chemical transformations, and leftover metabolites can tell us about the process behind them.

Studying metabolites is almost like looking at someone’s apartment and coming up with a story of their recent lives: we can make guesses about a lifestyle based on what we see!

Routinely, metabolites are measured through analytical techniques like NMR and mass spectrometry (MS). But a new astonishing era is emerging. With new sensitivity enhancement techniques (signals can be increased by more than 20,000 times [1-4]), MR imaging will become a new tool to study metabolism in vivo and will move beyond morphology onto a platform to visualize molecules. Being fundamentally a quantum mechanical technique, the full potential of MRI is yet to be discovered.

I see my “dream research” project as the development of a new experimental MRI-NMR/MS platform to study metabolomics of memory and thought in living creatures. By developing novel MRI pulse sequences (which will take into account quantum-mechanical nature of molecules) and by applying state-of-the-art signal enhancement techniques, we will be able to “light up” the regions of the brain to study chemistry in them with an unprecedented level of accuracy. I believe that once all new methodologies available today are combined, it will become possible to create functional MRI for metabolomics – a tool to study instant chemical changes in the brain associated with memory and thinking. This will not only revisit the known biochemical processes at a new quantitative level, it will allow unraveling unexpected secrets of metabolism. And it is not only a fun thing to do — understanding the biochemical reasons for making decisions will bring us much closer to a society in which everyone truly enjoys living.


[1] J. H. Ardenkjær-Larsen et al. Increase in signal-to-noise ratio of >10,000 times in liquid-state NMR. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 2003, 100 (18), 10158-10163.

[2] R. W. Adams et al. Reversible Interactions with parahydrogen Enhance NMR Sensitivity by Polarization Transfer. Science, 2009, 323 (5922), 1708-1711.

[3] D. A. Barskiy et al. Over 20% 15N Hyperpolarization in Under One Minute for Metronidazole, an Antibiotic and Hypoxia Probe. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2016, 138 (26), 8080–8083.

[4] D. A. Barskiy et al. NMR Hyperpolarization Techniques of Gases. Chem. Eur. J., 2017, 23 (4), 725-751.