Mass Spec Analysis of PTMs Using Minimal Sample Material

DNA is organized by protein:DNA complexes called nucleosomes in eukaryotes. Nucleosomes are composed of 147 base pairs of DNA wrapped around a histone octamer containing two copies of each core histone protein. Histone proteins play significant roles in many nuclear processes including transcription, DNA damage repair and heterochromatin formation. Histone proteins are extensively and dynamically post-translationally modified, and these post-translational modifications (PTMs) are thought to comprise a specific combinatorial PTM profile of a histone that dictates its specific function.  Abnormal regulations of PTM may lead to developmental disorders and disease development such as cancer.

Antibodies have been widely used to characterize histones and histone PTMs. However, antibody-based techniques have several limitations. Mass spectrometry (MS) has therefore emerged as the most suitable analytical tool to quantify proteomes and protein PTMs.  The most commonly used strategy is still bottom-up MS, and the most widely adopted protocol includes derivatization of lysine residues in histones to allow trypsin to generate Arg-C like peptides (4–20 aa). However, samples such as primary tissues, complex model systems, and biofluids are hard to retrieve in large quantities. Because of this, it is critical to know whether the amount of sample available would lead to an exhaustive analysis if subjected to MS.

In a recent publication, Guo, et al. examined (1) the reproducibility in quantification of histone PTMs using a wide range of starting material: from 50,000 to 5,000,000 cells. They used four different cell lines: HeLa, 293T, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), and myoblasts. Their results demonstrated that an accurate quantification of abundant histone PTMs can be efficiently obtained by using low-resolution MS and as low as 50,000 cells as starting material Low abundance histone marks showed more variability in quantification when comparing different amounts of starting material, so a larger amount of starting material (at least 500,000 cells) is recommended.


Guo, Q. et al. (2017) Assessment of Quantification Precision of Histone Post-Translational Modifications by Using an Ion Trap and down To 50,000 Cells as Starting Material. J. Proteome Res. 17, 234–42.

Evaluating the Costs of Endotoxin Testing

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating symposium held at Promega featuring conservationist Steward Brand, where he described some of the projects developed by his foundation, Revive & Restore.

The organization’s mission is to apply emerging biotechnology techniques to endangered and extinct species with the intent to increase genetic diversity, provide disease resistance and facilitate adaptation to changing climates. Although the overall message of enhancing biodiversity through the application of new genetic technology was inspiring, the project that resonated most for me was related to the plight of horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs, often referred to as living fossils, include four extant species with origins dating back about 450 million years. Although they look like crabs, they belong to their own subphylum and are more closely related to spiders. When horseshoe crabs spawn, they leave their usual habitat on the ocean floor and migrate to shore in large numbers. As a result, they have been exploited for bait and fertilizer for decades.

Enter endotoxins, an indicator for bacterial contamination in biologicals, drugs and medical devices. U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulations dictate that finished products be tested for the presence of endotoxins. These pyrogenic compounds, found in the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria, can cause fever and affect a wide range of biological activity, possibly leading to aseptic shock and death. The most common method for testing is the gel clot and Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) Test.

I first learned about the LAL test during graduate school, where it was presented as a ubiquitous and standard requirement for testing bacterial contamination in injectable drugs. I remember being fascinated that horseshoe crabs (Limulus sp.), contain a substance that could be used to detect endotoxins. Although the instructors mentioned the need to collect blood from horseshoe crabs in order to produce the test, the method or scale of this harvest wasn’t discussed, nor were the true costs of using this method of endotoxin testing.

The LAL test has served as a faster, more inexpensive replacement for the rabbit pyrogens test for the past 35 years. Every year during mating season horseshoe crabs move to shallow water, where they are removed in huge numbers. (To get an idea of scale for the harvest and read a much more comprehensive investigation of the issue, check out this article in The Atlantic, which features an archive photo of Delaware Bay horseshoe crab harvest from 1928—for fertilizer, not pharmaceutical testing.)

After collection, the crabs end up in a lab where up to 30% of their blood is drained from a needle stuck in tissue around their heart. The LAL is extracted from the blood and can yield a product worth up to $15,000/quart. In order to avoid recollection, the crabs are returned to the ocean far from the shore where they were collected a few days before. Although it’s estimated that only 10-30% of these crabs die as a result of the process, there are indications that the horseshoe crab population and their ecosystems are impacted in other ways.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University used accelerometers attached to recently bled female horseshoe crabs to test the hypothesis that harvesting for LAL was affecting their ability to spawn. While the research supported previous estimates with a death rate of 18%, females were found to be less likely to mate after being bled.

During his talk, Brand shared results from a study still in review that confirm the effect of over-harvesting Limulus on the survival of long distance migratory shorebirds. These birds synchronize their migration with horseshoe crab spawning, which provides a needed feast of eggs before the homestretch of their journey. Along with other ecosystem threats from climate change, the accelerated decline in the horseshoe crab population and dependency of migratory birds will likely to lead to a devastating ecological domino effect.

Fortunately, a synthetic alternative to LAL, recombinant factor C (rFC), has been available for nearly 20 years. Alas, there has been no significant shift by pharmaceutical companies away from the test based on horseshoe crab blood. rFC was patented and licensed to one company, Lonza, which Brand posited as one reason for the reluctance of drug companies to adopt its use.

Obviously, relying on one source for an essential testing reagent with no competition to temper cost is quite unattractive. But that argument has less bearing now that the patent is scheduled to expire in a few months, opening the door for additional manufacturers and creating an economic incentive for switching to the synthetic test.

Another reason may be that implementing a new test would require additional resources to validate the synthetic test for products that are already being tested with the LAL. Since the LAL has been specified in FDA guidance documents on endotoxin testing for decades, quality standards for existing products are based on the LAL, limiting momentum to change.

If both tests offered the same benefits, these arguments would make sense; however, research by one of the discoverers of rFC, Jeak Ling Ding of the National University of Singapore, shows that in many respects rFC is more efficacious than LAL. Since the raw material for the LAL test depends on an organism, there is seasonal variation in the components of the processed blood that must be taken into account. The reaction of the LAL also depends on a cascade of multiple compounds that can be affected by temperature, pH and proteins—leaving the test vulnerable to false positive results.

Although Eli Lilly is the only pharmaceutical company to date to use rFC in place of LAL, It seems the tide may be turning. According to Brand, others are interested in making the transition. It seems foolish not to, given the source for LAL shows signs of dwindling due to overexploitation. Perhaps pharmaceutical companies are beginning to see the value of a “slower/better” philosophy (the cornerstone of the Long Now Foundation, another brainchild of Brand’s), rather than “faster/cheaper.” I have certainly gained a new perspective on endotoxin testing and a deep appreciation for the work of Brand and his foundation.

Does your organization use the LAL test? What is preventing you from switching to the synthetic alternative? Let us know!

Biotechnology From the Mouths of Babes

As a science writer, much of my day entails reviewing and revising marketing materials and technical literature about complex life science research products. I take for granted the understanding that I, my colleagues and our customers have of how these technologies work. This fact really struck me as I read an article about research to improve provider-patient communication in healthcare settings.

The researchers completed an analysis revealing that patient information materials had an average readability at a high school level, while the average patient reads at a fourth-grade level. These findings inspired the researchers to conduct a study in which they enlisted the help of elementary students to revise the content of the patient literature after giving them a short lesson on the material.

The resulting content did not provide more effective ways to communicate indications, pre- and post-op care, risks or procedures—that wasn’t really the point. Instead, the study underscores the important connection between patient literacy and health outcomes. More specifically, a lack of health literacy is correlated with poor outcomes and increased healthcare costs, prompting action from the US Department of Health & Human Services.

While healthcare information can be complex and full of specific medical terminology, I recognized that a lot of the technical and marketing information we create for our products at Promega has similar features. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out how descriptions of some of our biggest technologies translate through the eyes and mouths of children?

After enlisting some help from my colleagues, I was able to catch a glimpse of how our complex technologies are understood by the little people in our lives. The parents and I explained a technology and then had our child provide a description or drawing of what they understood. Continue reading

NanoBRET™ Target Engagement Intracellular Kinase Assay Nominated for Scientists’ Choice Award®

Joins Nominees for Best New Drug Discovery & Development Product 2017

SelectScience® nominates NanoBRET™ Target Engagement Kinases Assay as a Best New Drug Discovery & Development product for 2017.

We were honored recently to have NanoBRET™ Target Engagement Intracellular Kinase Assays nominated by SelectScience® as one of the Best New Drug Discovery & Development Products of 2017. This is a Scientists’ Choice Award®, an opportunity for scientists like you worldwide to vote for your favorite new drug discovery/development product.

We are super excited about both the nomination and the NanoBRET™ Target Engagement Intracellular Kinase Assay. Here is a little information about the assay.

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Optimized Detection of EPO-Fc in Human Biological Fluids

Recombinant erythropoietin (rhEPO) is often used as “doping agent” by athletes in endurance sports to increase blood oxygen capacity. Some strategies improve the pharmacological properties of erythropoietin (EPO) through the genetic and chemical modification of the native EPO protein. The EPO-Fcs are fusion proteins composed of monomeric or dimeric recombinant EPO and the dimeric Fc region of human IgG molecules. The Fc region includes the hinge region and the CH2 and CH3 domains. Recombinant human EPOs (rhEPO) fused to the IgG Fc domain demonstrate a prolonged half-life and enhanced erythropoietic activity in vivo compared with native or rhEPO.

Drug-testing agencies will need to obtain primary structure information and develop a reliable analytical method for the determination of EPO-Fc abuse in sport. The possibility of EPO-Fc detection using nanohigh-performance liquid chromatography−tandem mass spectrometry (HPLC−MS/MS) was already demonstrated (1). However, the prototyping peptides derived from EPO and IgG are not selective enough because both free proteins are naturally presented in human serum. In a recent publication, researchers describe the effort to identify peptides covering unknown fusion breakpoints (later referred to as “spacer” peptides; 2). The identification of “spacer” peptides will allow the confirmation of the presence of exogenous EPO-Fc in human biological fluids.

A bottom-up approach and the intact molecular weight measurement of deglycosylated protein and its IdeS proteolytic fractions was used to determine the amino acid sequence of EPO-Fc. Using multiple proteases, peptides covering unknown fusion breakpoints (spacer peptides) were identified.

Results indicated that “spacer peptides” could be used in the determination of EPO-Fc fusion proteins in biological samples using common LC−tandem MS methods.


  1. Reichel, C. et al. (2012) Detection of EPO-Fc fusion protein in human blood: screening and confirmation protocols for sports drug testing.
    Drug Test. Anal. 4, 818−29.
  2. Mesonzhnik, N. et al. (2017) Characterization and Detection of Erythropoietin Fc Fusion Proteins Using Liquid Chromatography−Mass Spectrometry.
    J. of Proteome Res. 17, 689-97.

FutureQuest17: Dynamic Career Exploration for Middle School Students

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

The Dane County School Consortium and the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Career and Technical Education Division collaborated to offer FutureQuest17 on December 6th at the Alliant Energy Center.  Designed as a hands-on experience for Dane County middle school students to explore areas of potential interest within a 16 career cluster, over 70 companies provided information and activities for 5300+ attendees.

BTC Institute staff members (Isabel Agasie, Amy Prevost and Karin Borgh) and volunteer Promega production scientists (Molly Nyholm and Kay Rashka) created a lively table area that focused on bioluminescence. Our space included opportunities to see an illustration of the range of careers in a biotechnology company like Promega, practice with different sizes of pipettes, view glowing recombinant luciferase, watch a scrolling slide show illustrating bioluminescence both in nature and in the lab and consider why a scientist might be interested in bioluminescence as a research tool.

Most importantly, we were able to engage in many wonderful conversations, and for this we needed all five of us since the schedule for the day included 14 periods of 20 minutes each—our estimate is that we were able to speak with ~40–50 students during each of these cycles!

As Molly noted:

The questions students asked were fantastic!!  “What is the chemical composition of this luciferin solution?”  “How much money do you make?”  “Do all glowing creatures have the same luciferase enzyme or are they different?”  “Are there any bioluminescent fish in Wisconsin?”  “Do I have to go to school for as long as you did if I want to be a scientist?”  “What pH is this solution?”  “Does this have potassium or sodium iodide?”  “Can I do an internship?”  “Can I be on the culinary team at Promega?”  “Does my glow paint have luciferase in it?”  “Do you have to take luciferase and luciferin out of those creatures or is there a way to make it in the lab?”

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

And, Isabel added:

It was really great to connect with students and also with teachers. Lots of fun being surrounded by kids and fantastic adults. Some kids were surprised to learn that a biotechnology company hires people in other areas besides science. They asked about diversity and were very glad to hear that there are many different kinds of jobs in biotech companies.

Some of the other presenters in the STEM area of the event that we were in close proximity to included: the City of Madison Engineering Division (where students could construct marble runs that represented water flow), Saris (where students could ride bikes set up to display a training program), Laser Tag (try it out!), very active construction companies’ hammering stations and the MG&E’s electric car. In other words, the level of activity was high, and it was wonderful to contribute to this event—we’ll be back next year!

Promega Partnering with UC-Davis Drought-Resistant Rice Project

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) announced on November 30 that they are awarding $1M to a project based at the University of California, Davis, to study protein kinases of rice plants. The team is led by Dr. Pamela Ronald, a leading expert in plant genetics who has engineered disease- and flood-resistant rice. This project aims to address the growing agricultural problem of water scarcity by gaining a better understanding of the role kinases play in enabling drought-resistance. Promega will be supporting this research by providing NanoBRET™ products to help characterize kinase inhibitors.

Principal Investigator Pamela Ronald, Ph.D. Photo Credit: Deanne Fitzmaurice

The research team will begin by screening over 1,000 human kinase inhibitors to determine which ones do interact with the plant kinome and, if applicable, which kinase(s) they inhibit. Once the compound library has been established, the team will assess the inhibitors’ phenotypic effects on rice to identify kinases that, when inhibited, positively impact root growth and development. The long-term goal is to use these findings to engineer drought-resistant rice.

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Shining Stars: Cool NanoLuc® Plasmid Constructs Available Through the Addgene Repository

Researchers having been sharing plasmids ever since there were plasmids to share. Back when I was in the lab, if you read a paper and saw an interesting construct you wished to use, you could either make it yourself or you could “clone by phone”.  One of my professors was excellent at phone cloning with labs around the world and had specific strategies and tactics for getting the plasmids he wanted. Addgene makes this so much easier to share your constructs from lab to lab. Promega supports the Addgene mission statement: Accelerate research and discovery by improving access to useful research materials and information.  Many of our technology platforms like HaloTag® Fusion Protein, codon-optimized Firefly luciferase genes (e.g., luc2), and NanoLuc® Luciferase are present in the repository. We encourage people to go to Addgene to get new innovative tools. Afterall, isn’t science better when we share?

I’d like to focus on some tools in the Addgene collection based on NanoLuc® Luciferase (NLuc).  The creation of NanoLuc® Luciferase and the optimal substrate furimazine is a good story (1).  From a deep sea shrimp to a compact powerhouse of bioluminescence, NLuc is 100-fold brighter than our more common luciferases like firefly (FLuc) and Renilla (RLuc) luciferase.  This is important not so much for how bright you can make a reaction but for how sensitive you can make a reaction.  NLuc requires 100-fold less protein to produce the same amount of light from a Fluc or RLuc reaction.  NLuc lets you work at physiological concentrations.  NLuc is bright enough to detect endogenous tagged genes generated through the CRISPR/Cas9 knock-in.  NLuc is very inviting for endogenous tagging as it is only 19kDa.  An example is the CRISPaint-NLuc construct (Plasmid #67178) for use in the system outlined in Schmid-Burgk, J.L. et al (2).

Two applications of NanoLuc® Technology have caught my attention through coupling the luciferase with fluorescent proteins to make better imaging reporters and biosensors. Continue reading

Glycosyltransferases: What’s New in GT Assays?

In his 2014 blog, “Why We Care About Glycosyltransferases” Michael Curtin, Promega Global Product Manager for Cell Signaling, wrote:

“Glycobiology is the study of carbohydrates and their role in biology. Glycans, defined as ‘compounds consisting of a large number of monosaccharides linked glycosidically’ are present in all living cells; They coat cell membranes and are integral components of cell walls. They play diverse roles, including critical functions in cell signaling, molecular recognition, immunity and inflammation. They are the cell-surface molecules that define the ABO blood groups and must be taken into consideration to ensure successful blood transfusions.

The process by which a sugar moiety is attached to a biological compound is referred to as glycosylation. Protein glycosylation is a form of post-translational modification, which is important for many biological processes and often serves as an analog switch that modulates protein activity. The class of enzymes responsible for transferring the sugar moiety onto proteins is called a glycosyltransferase (GT).”

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Luciferase Immunoprecipitation System Assay (LIPS): Expression of Luciferase Antigen using TNT Transcription/Translation Kit

NanoLuc dual reporters

Illustration showing NanoLuc and firefly luciferase reporters.

The luciferase immunoprecipitation system (LIPS) assay is a liquid phase immunoassay allowing high-throughput serological screening of antigen-specific antibodies. The immunoassay involves quantitating serum antibodies by measuring luminescence emitted by the reporter enzyme Renilla luciferase (Rluc) fused to an antigen of interest. The Rluc-antigen fusion protein is recognized by antigen-specific antibodies, and antigen-antibody complexes are captured by protein A/G beads that recognize the Fc region of the IgG antibody (1).

In a recent publication (2), this assay was used to assess the presence of autoantibodies against ATP4A and ATP4B subunits of parietal cells H+, K+-ATPase in patients with atrophic body gastritis and in controls. Continue reading