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Supercharging electrospray ionization can be a powerful tool for increasing charge states in mass spectra and generating unfolded ion structures, yet key details of its mechanism remain unclear. The structures of highly extended protein ions and the mechanism of supercharging were investigated using ion mobility-mass spectrometry. Head-to-tail-linked polyubiquitins (Ubq1−11) were used to determine size and charge state scaling laws for unfolded protein ions formed by supercharging while eliminating amino acid composition as a potential confounding factor. Collisional cross section was found to scale linearly with mass for these ions and several other monomeric proteins, and the maximum observed charge state for each analyte scales with mass in agreement with an analytical charge state scaling law for protein ions with highly extended structures that is supported by experimental gas-phase basicities. These results indicate that these highly unfolded ions can be considered quasi-one-dimensional, and collisional cross sections modeled with the Trajectory Method in Collidoscope show that these ions are significantly more extended than linear α-helices but less extended than straight chains. The effect of internal disulfide bonds on the extent of supercharging was probed using bovine serum albumin, β-lactoglobulin, and lysozyme, each of which contains multiple internal disulfide bonds. Reduction of the disulfide bonds led to a marked increase in charge state upon supercharging without significantly altering folding in solution. This evidence supports a supercharging mechanism in which these proteins unfold before or during evaporation of the electrospray droplet and ionization occurs by the Chain Ejection Model.


Originally published in Analytical Chemistry (2017), 89, 9, 5107–5114.

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