NMR spectroscopy has been applied to cells and tissues analysis since its beginnings, as early as 1950. We have attempted to gather here in a didactic fashion the broad diversity of data and ideas that emerged from NMR investigations on living cells. Covering a large proportion of the periodic table, NMR spectroscopy permits scrutiny of a great variety of atomic nuclei in all living organisms non-invasively. It has thus provided quantitative information on cellular atoms and their chemical environment, dynamics, or interactions. We will show that NMR studies have generated valuable knowledge on a vast array of cellular molecules and events, from water, salts, metabolites, cell walls, proteins, nucleic acids, drugs and drug targets, to pH, redox equilibria and chemical reactions. The characterization of such a multitude of objects at the atomic scale has thus shaped our mental representation of cellular life at multiple levels, together with major techniques like mass-spectrometry or microscopies.
NMR studies on cells has accompanied the developments of MRI and metabolomics, and various subfields have flourished, coined with appealing names: fluxomics, foodomics, MRI and MRS (i.e. imaging and localized spectroscopy of living tissues, respectively), whole-cell NMR, on-cell ligand-based NMR, systems NMR, cellular structural biology, in-cell NMR… All these have not grown separately, but rather by reinforcing each other like a braided trunk. Hence, we try here to provide an analytical account of a large ensemble of intricately linked approaches, whose integration has been and will be key to their success.
We present extensive overviews, firstly on the various types of information provided by NMR in a cellular environment (the “why”, oriented towards a broad readership), and secondly on the employed NMR techniques and setups (the “how”, where we discuss the past, current and future methods). Each subsection is constructed as a historical anthology, showing how the intrinsic properties of NMR spectroscopy and its developments structured the accessible knowledge on cellular phenomena. Using this systematic approach, we sought i) to make this review accessible to the broadest audience and ii) to highlight some early techniques that may find renewed interest. Finally, we present a brief discussion on what may be potential and desirable developments in the context of integrative studies in biology.