A tale of two biomarkers: untargeted 1H NMR metabolomic fingerprinting of BHBA and NEFA in early lactation dairy cows Academic Article uri icon


  • Disorders of energy metabolism, which can result from a failure to adapt to the period of negative energy balance immediately after calving, have significant negative effects on the health, welfare and profitability of dairy cows. The most common biomarkers of energy balance in dairy cows are β-hydroxybutyrate (BHBA) and non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA). While elevated concentrations of these biomarkers are associated with similar negative health and production outcomes, the phenotypic and genetic correlations between them are weak. In this study, we used an untargeted 1H NMR metabolomics approach to investigate the serum metabolomic fingerprints of BHBA and NEFA. Serum samples were collected from 298 cows in early lactation (calibration dataset N = 248, validation N = 50). Metabolomic fingerprinting was done by regressing 1H NMR spectra against BHBA and NEFA concentrations (determined using colorimetric assays) using orthogonal partial least squares regression. Prediction accuracies were high for BHBA models, and moderately high for NEFA models (R2 of external validation of 0.88 and 0.75, respectively). We identified 16 metabolites that were significantly (variable importance of projection score > 1) correlated with the concentration of one or both biomarkers. These metabolites were primarily intermediates of energy, phospholipid, and/or methyl donor metabolism. Of the significant metabolites identified; (1) two (acetate and creatine) were positively correlated with BHBA but negatively correlated with NEFA, (2) nine had similar associations with both BHBA and NEFA, (3) two were correlated with only BHBA concentration, and (4) three were only correlated with NEFA concentration. Overall, our results suggest that BHBA and NEFA are indicative of similar metabolic states in clinically healthy animals, but that several significant metabolic differences exist that help to explain the weak correlations between them. We also identified several metabolites that may be useful intermediate phenotypes in genomic selection for improved metabolic health.

publication date

  • 2020