Protein Oxidative Modifications During Electrospray Ionization: Solution Phase Electrochemistry or Corona Discharge-Induced Radical Attack?
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The exposure of solution-phase proteins to reactive oxygen species (ROS) causes oxidative modifications, giving rise to the formation of covalent +16 Da adducts. Electrospray ionization (ESI) mass spectrometry (MS) is the most widely used method for monitoring the extent of these modifications. Unfortunately, protein oxidation can also take place as an experimental artifact during ESI, such that it may be difficult to assess the actual level of oxidation in bulk solution. Previous work has demonstrated that ESI-induced oxidation is highly prevalent when operating at strongly elevated capillary voltage V(0) (e.g., +8 kV) and with oxygen nebulizer gas in the presence of a clearly visible corona discharge. Protein oxidation under these conditions is commonly attributed to OH radicals generated in the plasma of the discharge. On the other hand, charge balancing oxidation reactions are known to take place at the metal/liquid interface of the emitter. Previous studies have not systematically explored whether such electrochemical processes could be responsible for the formation of oxidative +16 Da adducts instead of (or in combination with) plasma-generated ROS. Using hemoglobin as a model system, this work illustrates the occurrence of extensive protein oxidation even under typical operating conditions (e.g., V(0) = 3.5 kV, N(2) nebulizer gas). Surprisingly, measurements of the current flowing in the ESI circuit demonstrate that a weak corona discharge persists for these relatively gentle settings. On the basis of comparative experiments with nebulizer gases of different dielectric strength, it is concluded that ROS generated under discharge conditions are solely responsible for ESI-induced protein oxidation. This result is corroborated through off-line electrolysis experiments designed to mimic the electrochemical processes taking place during ESI. Our findings highlight the necessity of using easily oxidizable internal standards in biophysical or biomedical ESI-MS studies where knowledge of protein oxidation in bulk solution is desired. Strategies for eliminating ESI-induced oxidation artifacts are discussed.