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Analytical chemistry





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"Native" electrospray ionization (ESI) mass spectrometry (MS) aims to transfer proteins from solution into the gas phase while maintaining solution-like structures and interactions. The ability to control the charge states of protein ions produced in these experiments is of considerable importance. Supercharging agents (SCAs) such as sulfolane greatly elevate charge states without significantly affecting the protein structure in bulk aqueous solution. The origin of native ESI supercharging remains contentious. According to one model, SCAs trigger unfolding within ESI droplets. In contrast, the "charge trapping model" envisions that SCAs impede the ejection of charge carriers (e.g., NH4+ or Na+) from the droplet. We addressed this controversy experimentally and computationally by employing 18C6 crown ether as a mechanistic probe in native ESI-MS experiments on holo-myoglobin. Remarkably, 18C6 suppressed the supercharging capability of sulfolane. Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations reproduced the experimental charge states. The MD data revealed that 18C6 altered the location of charge carriers in the ESI droplets. Without 18C6, sulfolane covered the droplets in an ionophobic layer that impeded charge carrier access to the surface. In contrast, 18C6 complexation caused charge carrier enrichment in this surface layer, thereby promoting charge ejection. For late droplets, all the water had left and the protein was encapsulated in sulfolane; charge ejection at this stage continued only in the presence of 18C6. As a result, evaporation to dryness of charge-depleted water/sulfolane/18C6 droplets produced low protein charge states, whereas charge-abundant water/sulfolane droplets generated high charge states. Our data support the view that native ESI supercharging is caused by charge trapping. Unfolding within the droplet may play an ancillary role under some conditions, but for the cases examined here, protein structural changes are not a causative factor for supercharging. Our conclusions are bolstered by dendrimer supercharging experiments.

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