What’s In Your Pee?

It took seven years and 20 researchers, but a team at the University of Alberta have finally, using all available state-of-the-art equipment, figured out the chemical composition of human urine. This also means there’s a good chance that somebody has replied to the question “so what do you do?” with “I’ve been looking at urine for the past seven years.”

According to David Wishart, the senior scientist on the project, medical textbooks list anywhere from 50-100 chemical compounds in urine, and standard urine tests (like when you pee into a cup to test for drug use) only check for six or seven compounds. But this study used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography to find over 3,000 different chemical compounds.

Even better, the project has resulted in a freely available database of all these compounds, which will be updated as new technology reveals more compounds. Here’s the description, from the database:

The Urine Metabolome database is a freely available electronic database containing detailed information about 3100 small molecule metabolites found in human urine along with 3900 concentration values. Each metabolite entry contains more than 110 data fields and many of them are hyperlinked to other databases (KEGG, PubChem, ChEBI, Chemspider, DrugBank, PDB and Uniprot). The information includes literature and experimentally derived chemical data, clinical data and molecular/biochemistry data.

There’s lots of potential reasons why we’d want to know exactly what’s going on in our urine; it can help us understand how our diet affects our waste management system, and how our bodies process food and liquid. And once we’ve figured that stuff out, we can use simple, non-invasive urine tests to check for all kinds of illnesses that might typically require a less pleasant blood test or other kind of test. Wishart notes that urine tests could be used to test for different kinds of cancer, for celiac disease, pneumonia, and lots more.

“Urine is an incredibly complex biofluid. We had no idea there could be so many different compounds going into our toilets,” said Wishart pithily.

The study was published today in the journal PLoS One.