This Is Mass Spectrometry

Mass spectrometry (MS) is an analytical method for the determination of the masses of atoms or molecules. Therefore, MS is a powerful analytical method for the identification and quantification of chemical compounds – in fact, there is no compound that is “not chemical” – for the elucidation of their structure, and for the determination of other chemical properties, in particular intrinsic properties of molecules.

This may sound as if MS was far outside our daily life. On the contrary: Mass spectrometry affects our lives in numerous ways. To understand the impact of MS, of course requires some insight into this incredibly variable and capable analytical technique.

On the following pages, we, the German Society for Mass Spectrometry, would like to briefly introduce our beloved analytical method to you. We will try to do so in a way that it can be understood by a layperson with just basic school knowledge of chemistry. We wish you an enjoyable time reading this introduction and hope that it can create some interest for what MS is and what we do.


Thanks to MS, we may gather analytical information from nanogram (10–9 g) or even picogram (10–12 g) amounts of samples that may be present in low concentration in complex mixtures. Literally, MS can find the needle in a haystack. Thus, MS is not only indispensable in chemistry. Mass spectrometry-based analytical techniques are of utmost importance in medicine, biology, physics, and geosciences. They serve for doping control, forensic analytics, quality control, environmental analysis, and many other fields including the exploration of our planets and other objects in space.

Mass spectrometry, in particular tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS), allows for the elucidation of the structure of biomolecules such as proteins and peptides, oligonucleotides or oligosaccharides. Tandem MS thus presents one of the most important tools in life science. MS enables researchers to understand the way how medications, drugs (including the illicit ones and doping) interact with the organism or to detect the use of illicit drugs by individuals. MS can analyze environmental pollution, it identifies and even quantifies trace compounds in complex mixtures. In geology or archeology MS may be used to determine the age of fossils or artifacts, respectively. Mass spectral imaging techniques create images of microelectronic devices to reveal the lateral distribution of elements, they deliver insight into tissues, and may even distinguish benign from malign tissue, e.g., mark the expansion of a tumor. Safety in public transportation, especially air travel, benefits from detection of explosives on clothing or luggage.

Mass spectrometry is highly interdisciplinary – to such an extent that probably no single mass spectrometrist is anymore able to know this field in its entirety. The reason for this may be found in the fact that the development of instrumentation, of analytical applications, and of daily routine work are lying in the hands of ten thousands of people worldwide. To solve an analytical problem of highest complexity generally calls for specialization even within MS, e.g., in organic or inorganic MS, biomedical and clinical applications, geology or materials science.

Author: Dr. Jürgen H. Gross, Heidelberg