AbstractElectrospray ionization (ESI) mass spectrometry (MS) in both the positive and negative ion mode has been used to study protein unfolding transitions of lysozyme, cytochrome c (cyt c), and ubiquitin in solution. As expected, ESI of unfolded lysozyme leads to the formation of substantially higher charge states than the tightly folded protein in both modes of operation. Surprisingly, the acid-induced unfolding of cyt c as well as the acid and the base-induced unfolding of ubiquitin show different behavior: In these three cases protein unfolding only leads to marginal changes in the negative ion charge state distributions, whereas in the positive ion mode pronounced shifts to higher charge states are observed. This shows that ESI MS in the negative ion mode as a method for probing conformational changes of proteins in solution should be treated with caution. The data presented in this work provide further evidence that the conformation of a protein in solution not its charge state is the predominant factor for determining the ESI charge state distribution in the positive ion mode. Furthermore, these data support the hypothesis of a recent study (Konermann and Douglas, Biochemistry 1997, 36, 12296–12302) which suggested that ESI in the positive ion mode is not sensitive to changes in the secondary structure of proteins but only to changes in the tertiary structure
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