Tracer-based metabolomics is a systems biology tool that combines advances in tracer methodology for physiological studies, high throughput "-omics" technologies and constraint based modeling of metabolic networks. It is different from the commonly known metabolomics or metabonomics in that it is a targeted approach based on a metabolic network model in cells. Because of its complexity, it is the least understood among the various "-omics." In this review, the development of concepts and practices of tracer-based metabolomics is traced from the early application of radioactive isotopes in metabolic studies to the recent application of stable isotopes and isotopomer analysis using mass spectrometry; and from the modeling of biochemical reactions using flux analysis to the recent theoretical formulation of the constraint based modeling. How these newer experimental methods and concepts of constraint-based modeling approaches can be applied to metabolic studies is illustrated by examples of studies in determining metabolic responses of cells to pharmacological agents and nutrient environment changes.