Despite significant advances in chemical ecology, the biodistribution, temporal changes and ecological function of most marine secondary metabolites remain unknown. One such example is the association between choline esters and Tyrian purple precursors in muricid molluscs. Mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) on nano-structured surfaces has emerged as a sophisticated platform for spatial analysis of low molecular mass metabolites in heterogeneous tissues, ideal for low abundant secondary metabolites. Here we applied desorption-ionisation on porous silicon (DIOS) to examine in situ changes in biodistribution over the reproductive cycle. DIOS-MSI showed muscle-relaxing choline ester murexine to co-localise with tyrindoxyl sulfate in the biosynthetic hypobranchial glands. But during egg-laying, murexine was transferred to the capsule gland, and then to the egg capsules, where chemical ripening resulted in Tyrian purple formation. Murexine was found to tranquilise the larvae and may relax the reproductive tract. This study shows that DIOS-MSI is a powerful tool that can provide new insights into marine chemo-ecology.
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