Mass Spec for Glycosylation Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 Proteins Implicated in Host-Cell Entry

The spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a very commonly researched target in COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic studies because it is an integral part of host cell entry through interactions between the S1 subunit of the spike protein with the ACE2 protein on the target cell surface. Viral proteins important in host cell entry are typically highly glycosylated. Looking at the sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, researchers predict that the spike protein is highly glycosylated. In a recent study, spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2 were analyzed using mass spec analysis to determine the N-glycosylation profile of the subunits that make up the spike protein.

3d model of coronavirus covid-19

Glycans assist in protein folding and help the virus avoid immune recognition by the host. Glycosylation can also have an impact on the antigenicity of the virus, as well as potential effects on vaccine safety and efficacy. Mass spectrometry is widely used for viral characterization studies of influenza viruses. Specifically, mass spec has been used to study influenza protein glycosylation, antigen quantification, and determination of vaccine potency.

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More muscle from eggs? Proteo-lipid complex may help prevent age-associated loss of muscle-mass

In older people, low muscle mass is strongly associated with reduced functional capacity and an increased risk of disability. Myostatin is a negative regulator of muscle growth and has become an important target for pharmaceutical companies designing therapeutics to address age-associated muscle loss.

Anti-myostatin drugs increase muscle size and strength in preclinical studies. Fortetropin is a proteo-lipid complex made from fertilized egg yolk and shows anti-myostatin activity. When Fortetropin is provided as a supplement, lowered circulating myostatin levels are observed both in rodents and in young men. Fortetropin in combination with resistance exercise also lowers myostatin and increased lean body mass.

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Proteomics from a Different Point of View: Introducing ProAlanase, the Newest Mass-Spec Grade Protease from Promega

Sometimes, when using trypsin to study a protein sequence or protein modifications, sequence coverage just isn’t quite as complete as you’d like. Looking for a protease with novel cleavage specificity or a protease that functions well in a low pH environment? Promega has a protease for that.

ProAlanase is a new site-specific endoprotease that preferentially cleaves proteins on the C-terminal side of proline and alanine amino acids.  The unique cleavage specificity of ProAlanase (also known as An-PEP or EndoPro; 1–3) can help to uncover parts of the proteome not previously accessible with proteases typically used in proteomic studies.

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Understanding the Structure of SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein

Glycosylation is the process by which a carbohydrate is covalently attached totarget macromolecules, typically proteins. This modification serves various functions including guiding protein folding (1,2), promoting protein stability (2), and participating signaling functions (3).

ribbon structure of SARS-CoV-2 protein
Ribbon Structure of SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein

SARS-CoV-2 utilizes an extensively glycosylated spike (S) protein that protrudes from the viral surface to bind to angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) to mediate host-cell entry. Vaccine development has been focused on this protein, which is the focus of the humoral immune response. Understanding the glycan structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike (S) protein will be critical in the development of glycoprotine-based vaccine candidates.

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Bottom-up Proteomics: Need Help?

The use of mass spectrometry for the characterization of individual or complex protein samples continues to be one of the fastest growing fields in the life science market.

Bottom-up proteomics is the traditional approach to address these questions. Optimization of each the individual steps (e.g. sample prep, digestion and instrument performance) is critical to the overall success of the entire experiment.

To address issues that may arise in your experimental design, Promega has developed unique tools and complementary webinars to help you along the way.

Here you can find a summary of individual webinars for the following topics:

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Use of HIC high resolution chromatography and elastase for bottom up proteomics

One of the key applications used to characterize single or complex protein mixtures via bottom up proteomics is liquid chromatography−tandem mass spectrometry (LC−MS/MS).
Recent technical advances allow for identification of >10 000 proteins in a cancer cell line. On the peptide level chromatography methods, like strong cation exchange (SCX)
and hydrophilic interaction chromatography (HILIC), as well as high-pH reversed phase chromatography have been employed successfully. Because of its robustness
and ease of handling, the classical and still widely used approach for protein fractionation prior to LC− MS/MS is gel-based separation under denaturing conditions (SDS-PAGE).
Hydrophobic interaction chromatography (HIC) is a robust standard analytical method to purify proteins while preserving their biological activity. It is widely used
to study post-translational modifications of proteins and drug−protein interactions.  HIC is a high-resolution chromatography mode based on the interaction of
weakly hydrophobic ligands of the stationary phase with hydrophobic patches on the surface of the tertiary structure of proteins. By employment of high concentrations
of structure-promoting (“kosmotropic”) salts, proteins in HIC retain their conform

In a recent publication, HIC was used to separate proteins, followed by bottom up LC−MS/MS experiments (1).  HIC was used to fractionate antibody species
followed by comprehensive peptide mapping as well as to study protein complexes in human cells. The results indicated that HIC−reversed-phase chromatography (RPC)
mass spectrometry (MS) is a powerful alternative to fractionate proteins for bottom-up proteomics experiments making use of their distinct hydrophobic properties.

An additional observation noted that tryptic digests of the antibody used in the study yielded a protein coverage of 56% for the light chain and 63.2% for the
heavy chain. A consecutive proteolytic digestion protocol combing on-filter trypsin and elastase digestion drastically improved sequence coverage of
both light (100%) and heavy chains (99.2%).

1. Rackiewicz, M. et al. (2017) Hydrophobic Interaction Chromatography for Bottom-Up Proteomics Analysis of Single Proteins and Protein Complexes. J.Proteome.Res. 16, 2318–23.

Optimization of Alternative Proteases for Bottom-Up Proteomics

Alternate Proteases CoverBottom-up proteomics focuses on the analysis of protein mixtures after enzymatic digestion of the proteins into peptides. The resulting complex mixture of peptides is analyzed by reverse-phase liquid chromatography (RP-LC) coupled to tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS). Identification of peptides and subsequently proteins is completed by matching peptide fragment ion spectra to theoretical spectra generated from protein databases.

Trypsin has become the gold standard for protein digestion to peptides for shotgun proteomics. Trypsin is a serine protease. It cleaves proteins into peptides with an average size of 700-1500 daltons, which is in the ideal range for MS (1). It is highly specific, cutting at the carboxyl side of arginine and lysine residues. The C-terminal arginine and lysine peptides are charged, making them detectable by MS. Trypsin is highly active and tolerant of many additives.

Even with these technical features, the use of trypsin in bottom-up proteomics may impose certain limits in the ability to grasp the full proteome, Tightly-folded proteins can resist trypsin digestion. Post-translational modifications (PTMs) present a different challenge for trypsin because glycans often limit trypsin access to cleavage sites, and acetylation makes lysine and arginine residues resistant to trypsin digestion.

To overcome these problems, the proteomics community has begun to explore alternative proteases to complement trypsin. However, protocols, as well as expected results generated when using these alternative proteases have not been systematically documented.

In a recent reference (2), optimized protocols for six alternative proteases that have already shown promise in their applicability in proteomics, namely chymotrypsin, Lys-C, Lys-N, Asp-N, Glu-C and Arg-C have been created.

Data describe the appropriate MS data analysis methods and the anticipated results in the case of the analysis of a single protein (BSA) and a more complex cellular lysate (Escherichia coli). The digestion protocol presented here is convenient and robust and can be completed in approximately in 2 days.


  1. Laskay, U. et al. (2013) Proteome Digestion Specificity Analysis for the Rational Design of Extended Bottom-up and middle-down proteomics experiments. J of Proteome Res. 12, 5558–69.
  2. Giansanti, P. et. al. (2016) Six alternative protease for mass spectrometry based proteomics beyond trypsin. Nat. Protocols 11, 993–6

Filter-Aided Sample Preparation before Mass Spec Analysis: An Evaluation of FASP and eFASP

12271ma_800pxFilter-aided sample preparation (FASP) method is used for the on-filter digestion of proteins prior to mass-spectrometry-based analyses (1,2). FASP was designed for the removal of detergents, and chaotropes that were used for sample preparation. In addition, FASP removes components such as salts, nucleic acids and lipids. Akylation of reduced cysteine residues is also carried out on filter, after which protein is proteolyzed by use of trypsin on filter in the optimal buffer of the enzyme. Subsequent elution and desalting of the peptide-rich solution then provides a sample ready for LC–MS/MS analysis.

Erde et al. (3) described an enhanced FASP (eFASP) workflow that included 0.2% DCA in the exchange, alkylation, and digestion buffers,thus enhancing trypsin proteolysis, resulting in increases cytosolic and membrane protein representation. DCA has been reported (4) to improve the efficiency of the denaturation, solubilization, and tryptic digestion of proteins, particularly proteolytically resistant myoglobin and integral membrane proteins, thereby enhancing the efficiency of their identification with regard to the number of identified proteins and unique peptides.

In a recent publication (5) traditional FASP and eFASP were re-evaluated by ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography coupled to a quadrupole mass filter Orbitrap analyzer (Q Exactive). The results indicate that at the protein level, both methods extracted essentially the same number of hydrophobic transmembrane containing proteins as well as proteins associated with the cytoplasm or the cytoplasmic and outer membranes.

The LC–MS/MS results indicate that FASP and eFASP showed no significant differences at the protein level. However, because of the slight differences in selectivity at the physicochemical level of peptides, these methods can be seen to be somewhat complementary for analyses of complex peptide mixtures.

  1. Manza, L. L. et al. (2005) Sample preparation and digestion for proteomic analyses using spin filters Proteomics  5, 1742–74.
  2. Wiśniewski, J. R. et al. (2009) Universal sample preparation method for proteome analysis Nat. Methods 6, 359–62.
  3. Erde, J. et al. (2014) Enhanced FASP (eFASP) to increase proteomic coverage and sample recovery for quantitative proteome experiments. J. Proteome Res. 13, 1885–95.
  4. Lin, Y. et al. (2008) Sodium-deoxycholate-assisted tryptic digestion and identification of proteolytically resistant proteins Anal. Biochem.  377, 259–66.
  5. Nel. A. et al. (2015) Comparative Reevaluation of FASP and Enhanced FASP methods by LC-MS/MS/ J Proteome Res. 14, 1637–42.

Optimizing Trypsin Digestion Parameters for Plasma Proteins

TrypsinLysC Page 2Biomarkers in biological fluids in particular have the potential to inform regarding risk of disease or to allow early detection for more effective treatment. Plasma/serum is considered the universal source of biomarkers. This fluid is, indeed, easily collected, and the important point is that plasma collects proteins from each and every tissue, compared to other fluids such as urine or cerebrospinal fluid. Optimizing experimental conditions (i.e., use of trypsin for the digestion of target proteins) used to discover or monitor biomarkers in plasma is critical to successful detection of biomarkers.

In a recent publication by Proc et al., plasma denaturation/digestion protocols were compared using quanititation methods. In this reference 14 combinations of heat, solvent (acetonitrile, methanol, trifluoroethanol), chaotropic agents (guanidine hydrochloride, urea) and surfactants (sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS)and sodium deoxycholate (DOC) with effectiveness in improving tryptic digestion. Digestion efficiency was monitored by quantitating the peptides from 45 moderate- to high-abundance plasma proteins using tandem mass spectrometry in multiple reaction mode with a mixture of stable isotope labeled analogues of these peptides as internal standards. In the results, Proc et al. noted that use of either DOC and SDS produced an increase in the overall yield of tryptic peptides. Since SDS is not compatible with mass spectrometry and DOC can be easily remove by acid precipitation, the overall recommendation was the use of DOC with a nine hour digestion procedure.

Literature Cited:

Proc, J.L. et al. (2010) A Quantitative Study of the Effects of Chaotropic  Agents Surfactants and Solvents on the Digestion Efficiency of Human Plasma Proteins by Trypsin J. Proteome Res. 9, 5422–37.

Improved Characterization and Quantification of Complex Cell Surface N-Glycans

MSextractcroppedN-Glycosylation is a common protein post-translational modification occurring on asparagine residues of the consensus sequence asparagine-X-serine/threonine, where X may be any amino acid except proline. Protein N-glycosylation takes place in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) as well as in the Golgi apparatus.

Approximately half of all proteins typically expressed in a cell undergo this modification, which entails the covalent addition of sugar moieties to specific amino acids. There are many potential functions of glycosylation. For instance, physical properties include: folding, trafficking, packing, stabilization and protease protection. N-glycans present at the cell surface are directly involved in cell−cell or cell−protein interactions that trigger various biological responses.

The standard method used to profile the N-glycosylation pattern of cells is glycoprotein isolation followed by denaturation and/or tryptic digestion of the glycoproteins and an enzymatic release of the N-glycans using PNGase F followed by analysis mass spec. This method has been reported to yield high levels of high-mannose N-glycans that stem from both membrane proteins as well as proteins from the ER.(1,2)

For those researchers interested in characterizing only cell surface glycans (i.e.,  complex N-glycans)  a recent reference has developed a model system using HEK-292 cells that demonstrates a reproducible, sensitive, and fast method to profile surface N-glycosylation from living cells (3). The method involves standard centrifugation followed by enzymatic release of cell surface N-glycans. When compared to the standard methods the detection and quantification of complex-type N-glycans by increased their relative amount from 14 to 85%.

  1. North, S. J. et al. (2012) Glycomic analysis of human mast cells, eosinophils and basophils. Glycobiology. 2012, 22, 12–22.
  2. Reinke, S. O. et al. (2011) Analysis of cell surface N-glycosylation of the human embryonic
    kidney 293T cell line.
    J. Carbohydr. Chem.  30, 218–232.
  3. Hamouda, H. et al. (2014) Rapid Analysis of Cell Surface N‑Glycosylation from Living Cells Using Mass Spectrometry. J of Proteome Res. 13, 6144–51.