Many metabolomics studies aim to find 'biomarkers': sets of molecules that are consistently elevated or decreased upon experimental manipulation. Biological effects, however, often manifest themselves along a continuum of individual differences between the biological replicates in the experiment. Such differences are overlooked or even diminished by methods in standard use for metabolomics, although they may contain a wealth of information on the experiment. Properly understanding individual differences is crucial for generating knowledge in fields like personalised medicine, evolution and ecology. We propose to use simultaneous component analysis with individual differences constraints (SCA-IND), a data analysis method from psychology that focuses on these differences. This method constructs axes along the natural biochemical differences between biological replicates, comparable to principal components. The model may shed light on changes in the individual differences between experimental groups, but also on whether these differences correspond to, e.g., responders and non-responders or to distinct chemotypes. Moreover, SCA-IND reveals the individuals that respond most to a manipulation and are best suited for further experimentation. The method is illustrated by the analysis of individual differences in the metabolic response of cabbage plants to herbivory. The model reveals individual differences in the response to shoot herbivory, where two 'response chemotypes' may be identified. In the response to root herbivory the model shows that individual plants differ strongly in response dynamics. Thereby SCA-IND provides a hitherto unavailable view on the chemical diversity of the induced plant response, that greatly increases understanding of the system.
The article is published online in the journal Metabolomics and is free to access.