Chain Ejection Model for Electrospray Ionization of Unfolded Proteins: Evidence from Atomistic Simulations and Ion Mobility Spectrometry.
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The ion evaporation model (IEM) and the charged residue model (CRM) represent cornerstones of any discussion related to the mechanism of electrospray ionization (ESI). Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations have confirmed that small ions such as Na+ are ejected from the surface of aqueous ESI droplets (IEM), while folded proteins in native ESI are released by water evaporation to dryness (CRM). ESI of unfolded proteins yields [M + zH] z+ ions that are much more highly charged than their folded counterparts. A chain ejection model (CEM) has been proposed to account for the protein ESI behavior under such non-native conditions (Konermann, L., et al. Anal. Chem. 2013, 85, 2-9). The CEM envisions that unfolded proteins are driven to the droplet surface by hydrophobic and electrostatic factors, followed by gradual ejection via intermediates where droplets carry extended protein tails. Thus far, it has not been possible to support the CEM through MD simulations using realistic protein models and atomistic force fields. Such endeavors require much larger droplets than in previous MD studies. Also, the incorporation of CEM-related H+ migration is difficult. This work overcomes these challenges in MD simulations on unfolded apo-myoglobin (aMb) in droplets with a 5.5 nm radius (∼22500 water molecules). We focused on solutions at pH ∼4 where the aMb solution charge coincides with the charge on some of the electrosprayed ions (22+ to 27+), such that H+ migration could be neglected. Na+ ions were added to ensure a droplet charge close to the Rayleigh limit. We found that 16 of 17 MD runs on various protonation patterns produced [M + zH] z+ ions via chain ejection. The predicted stretched-out aMb conformations were consistent with experimental collision cross sections. These results support the view that unfolded proteins follow the CEM. Overall, the IEM/CRM/CEM triad can account for a wide range of ESI scenarios involving various types of analytes.