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Analytical chemistry





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Proteins that are unfolded in solution produce higher charge states during electrospray ionization (ESI) than their natively folded counterparts. Protein charge states can be further increased by the addition of supercharging agents (SCAs) such as sulfolane. The mechanism whereby these supercharged [M + zH] z+ ions are formed under unfolded conditions remains unclear. Here we employed a combination of mass spectrometry (MS), ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations for probing the ESI mechanism under denatured supercharging conditions. ESI of acid-unfolded apo-myoglobin (aMb) in the presence of sulfolane produced charge states around 27+, all the way to fully protonated (33+) aMb. MD simulations of aMb 27+ to 33+ in Rayleigh-charged water/sulfolane droplets culminated in electrostatically driven protein expulsion, consistent with the chain ejection model (CEM). The electrostatically stretched conformations predicted by these simulations were in agreement with IMS experiments. The CEM involves partitioning of mobile H+ between the droplet and the departing protein. Our results imply that supercharging of unfolded proteins is caused by residual sulfolane that stabilizes protonated sites on the protruding chains, thereby promoting H+ retention on the protein. The stabilization of charged sites is due to charge-dipole interactions mediated by the large dipole moment and the low volatility of sulfolane. Support for this mechanism comes from the experimental observation of sulfolane adducts on the most highly charged ions, a phenomenon previously noted by Venter ( J. Am. Soc. Mass Spectrom. 2012, 23, 489-497). The "CEM supercharging model" proposed here for unfolded proteins is distinct from the charge trapping mechanism believed to be operative during native ESI supercharging.

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