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

Will Warmer Weather Wake the Sleeping Giant (Viruses)?

Artist's conception of Mimivirus structure, the first of the giant viruses identified.

Artist’s conception of Mimivirus structure, the first of the giant viruses identified.

Following the discovery of Mimivirus (1) the first virus with a particles large enough to be visible under the light microscope, two additional “giant” viruses infecting Acanthamoeba have been discovered Pandoravirus (2) and Pithovirus sibericum (3), the latter from a 30,000 year old Siberian permafrost. A fourth type was recently isolated from the same sample of permafrost by Legendre et al, and named Mollivirus sibericum (4).

Mollivirus sibericum has an approximately spherical virion (0.6 µm diameter) with a 651kb GC-rich genome that encodes 523 proteins. To further characterize the virus the researchers performed transcromic- and proteomic-based time course experiments.

For the particle proteome and infectious cycle analysis, proteins were extracted and then run a 4–12% polyacrylamide gel, and trypsin digests were performed in-gel before nano LC-MS/MS analysis of the resulting peptides. Proteomic studies of the particle showed that it lacked an embarked transcription apparatus, but revealed an unusual presence of many ribosomal and ribosome-related proteins.

When the researchers explored the proteome during the course of an entire infectious cycle, the relative proportions of Mollivirus-, mitochondrion-, and Acanthamoeba encoded proteins were found to vary consistently with an infectious pattern that preserved the cellular host integrity as long as possible and with the release of newly formed virus particles through exocytosis.

In an interesting footnote, the authors of this study point out the fact that two different viruses retain their infectivity in prehistorical permafrost layers should be a concern in the context of global warming and the potential to expose humans to primeval viruses.


1. La Scola, B. et al.   (2003) A giant virus in amoebae. Science  299, 2033.
2. Philippe, N. et al. (2013) Pandoraviruses. Amoeba virus with genomes up to 2.5Mb reaching that of parasitic eukaryotes. Science 341,281–6.
3. Legendre, M. et al. (2014) Thirty thousand year old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology. Proc.Natl. Acad. Sci. 111, 4274–9.
4. Legendre, M. et al. (2015)  In depth study of Mollivirus sibercum, a new 30,000 year old giant virus infecting Acanthamoeba.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 112, E5327–35 (online).

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.

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.

Monitoring Mass Spec Instrument Performance and Sample Preparation

LC/MS performance monitoring. Each run used 1μg of human predigested protein extract injected into the instrument (Waters NanoAquity HPLC System interfaced to a Thermo Fisher Q Exactive™ Hybrid Quadrupole-Orbitrap Mass Spectrometer). Peptides were resolved with a 2-hour gradient. Weekly monitoring with the human extract ensured consistent analytical performance of the instrument.

LC/MS performance monitoring. Each run used 1μg of human predigested protein extract injected into the instrument (Waters NanoAquity HPLC System interfaced to a Thermo Fisher Q Exactive™ Hybrid Quadrupole-Orbitrap Mass Spectrometer). Peptides were resolved with a 2-hour gradient. Weekly monitoring with the human extract ensured consistent analytical performance of the instrument.

Proteomics, the analysis of the entire protein content of a living system, has become a vital part of life science research, and mass spectrometry (MS) is the method for analyzing proteins.  MS analysis of protein content allows researchers to identify proteins, sequence them and determine the nature of post translational modifications.

Mass spectrometry allows characterization of molecules by converting them to ions so that they can be manipulated in electrical and magnetic fields. Basically a small sample (analyte) is ionized, usually to cations by loss of an electron. After ionization, the charged particles (ions) are separated by mass and charge;  the separated particles are measured and data displayed as a mass spectrum. The mass spectrum is typically presented as a bar graph where each peak represents a single charged particle having a specific mass-to-charge (m/z) ratio. The height of the peak represents the relative abundance of the particle. The number and relative abundance of the ions reveal how different parts of the molecule relate to each other.

For the study of large, organic macromolecules, matrix associated laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) or tandem mass spec/collision induced dissociation (MS/MS) techniques are often used to generate the charged particles from the analyte. MS analysis brings sensitivity and specificity to proteome analysis. The technique has excellent resolution and is able to distinguish one ion from another, even when their m/z ratios are similar. Macromolecules are present in extremely different concentrations in the cells, and MS analysis can detect biomolecules across five logs of concentration. Continue reading

Mass Spec-Compatible Proteome Reference Material

MSextractcroppedThe complexity of biological samples places high demand on mass spec analytical capability. Adequate monitoring of instrument performance for proteomics studies requires equally complex reference material such as whole-cell extracts. However, whole-cell extracts available commercially are developed for general research (e.g., enzymatic or Western blot analysis) and contain detergents and salts that interfere with reverse phase liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Even after clean up, the extracts need to be digested, requiring time, labor and experience to generate samples for use in mass spectrometry. To address the need for complex protein material, we have developed whole-cell protein extracts from yeast and human cells. The yeast extract offers the convenience of a relatively small and well annotated proteome, whereas the human extract provides a complex proteome with large dynamic range. The human extract also serves as reference material for studies targeting the human proteome.

The extracts are free of compounds that interfere with reverse phase liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), and have been reduced with DTT and alkylated with iodoacetamide then digested with Trypsin/Lys-C Mix and lyophilized. These digested extracts (tryptic peptides) can be readily reconstituted in trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) or formic acid and injected into an instrument. The same human and yeast whole-cell extracts also are provided in an intact (undigested) form for users who would like to develop an independent method for preparing protein mass spectrometry samples. For convenience, the intact extracts are provided as a frozen solution.

Consistent extract protein composition is ensured by tight control over cell culture conditions and manufacturing process. Lot-to-lot consistency of extracts is monitored by various protein and peptide qualitative and quantitation methods, including LC-MS. (Quality control results are provided upon request.) Our manufacturing process assures compatibility with reverse phase liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, minimal nonspecific protein fragmentation, nonbiological post-translational modifi cations and,for digested extracts, minimal undigested peptides. The extracts are optimized for a high number of peptide and protein identifications in mass spectrometry analysis.

For more information, you can access the protocol here.

In-gel Protein Digestion: Increase Protein Identifications with an Abridged Procedure

10827MAIn-gel digestion complete in only 1 hour.[/caption]Identification of proteins resolved by SDS-PAGE requires a lengthy in-gel digestion and extraction procedure. The publication, Mass Spectrometry Compatible Surfactant for the Optimized In-Gel Protein Digestion, Saveliev, S. et al. (2013) Anal. Chem. 85, 907–14, addressed these obstacles by illustrating the technical benefits of the ProteaseMAX™ mass spectrometry surfactant.  A recent webinar reviewed key aspects of that paper that included:

11253MDImproved peptide recovery from gels: ProteaseMAX™ improved identification of proteins by enhanced protein digestion, increased peptide extraction and minimized postdigestion peptide loss. This is a major benefit for the in-gel digestion of low abundant proteins and enables the use of minimal sample material.

The webinar also contained information regarding the how the structure of ProteaseMAX™ Surfactant enables it to compatible with mass spec and how it can be used for protein denaturation and solubilization.

About the Webinar Series
www.promega.com/webinars/ provides a schedule of upcoming webinars. In addition, there are links to previous webinars, which allow you to view the recording or download a pdf of the presentation. There is also a pdf of additional material available for each past webinar.

To register for a webinar, use the Registration link at: www.promega.com/webinars/ This allows you to view a live webinar and participate in the live chat.

Need a reminder? You can also sign-up for monthly invitations to webinars at the webinars page (see link above). Note: Live chat is only available for live webinars, not recorded webinars.

Testing for Neonatal Sepsis: The Next Generation of Biomarkers

newbornNeonatal sepsis is a systemic infection prevalent in preterm and very low birth weight infants and causes high morbidity. Most cases of neonatal sepsis are caused by pathogenic bacteria that invade the bloodstream, triggering an abrupt and overwhelming infection in the target organs accompanied by a systemic inflammatory response. Testing for neonatal sepsis is challenging because it does not affect a specific organ and presents multiple symptoms that are often confused with other related conditions (1). Current diagnostic tests for sepsis include those that identify markers of the host response to infection (e.g., procalcitonin, C reactive protein, cytokines, etc.) and those that detect bacterial infection in blood (bacteremia) (2). The lack of specific diagnostic biomarkers for early and accurate detection of neonatal sepsis has spurred the quest for next-generation biomarkers using powerful mass screening technologies such as proteomics. Continue reading

Convenient, Non-Radioactive Detection of Isoaspartate

Structure of the PCMT1 protein. Based on PyMOL rendering of PDB 1i1n. Licensed under creative commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Structure of the PCMT1 protein. Based on PyMOL rendering of PDB 1i1n. Licensed under creative commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

The ISOQUANT® Isoaspartate Detection Kit is intended for quantitative detection of isoaspartic acid residues in proteins and peptides, which can result from the gradual, nonenzymatic deamidation of asparagine or rearrangement of aspartic acid residues.

The ISOQUANT® Kit is designed to provide information regarding the global formation of isoaspartic acid residues at Asn and Asp sites, not at each site separately.

The deamidation of asparagine residues and rearrangement of aspartic acid residues is characterized by the formation of a succinimide intermediate that resolves to form a mixture of isoaspartic acid (typically 70–85%) and aspartic acid.
The rate and extent of isoaspartic acid formation can vary widely among proteins, depending on the amino acid sequence and size of the target protein. Deamidation of Asn residues has been observed most frequently at Asn-Gly and Asn-Ser sites within proteins.

The ISOQUANT® Isoaspartate Detection Kit uses the enzyme Protein Isoaspartyl ethyltransferase (PIMT) to specifically detect the presence of isoaspartic acid residues in a target protein. PIMT catalyzes the transfer of a methyl group from S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM) to isoaspartic acid. Spontaneous decomposition of this methylated intermediate results in the release of methanol and reformation of the succinimide.


Wang, W. et al. (2012) Quantification and characterization of antibody deamidation by peptide mapping with mass spectrometry. Int. J. Mass. Spec. 312, 107–13.

Grappin, P. et al. (2011) New proteomic developments to analyze protein isomerization and their biological significance in plants. J. Proteomics, 74, 1475–82.

Yang, H. and Zubarev, R.A. (2010) Mass spectrometric analysis of asparagine deamidation and aspartate isomerization in polypeptides. Electrophoresis 31, 1764–71.

Sinha, S. et al. (2009) Effect of protein structure on deamidation rate in the Fc fragment of an IgG1 monoclonal antibody. Protein Sci. 18, 1573–84.

The Rise of Dinosaur Proteomics?

OsteocyteYears ago when I was still working in the lab, I was looking for control RNA options for my experiment in the Ambion catalog when I came across a listing for dinosaur brain RNA and DNA. I had to call their customer service and ask about the items because I could not believe such things existed. The representative I spoke with said I had found their joke listing and sent me a free t-shirt. While we are not quite to the point of selling dinosaur nucleic acid in life science company catalogs, there is some intriguing research in the journal Bone that does suggest that fossilized dinosaur osteocytes and associated proteins may be within our grasp. Continue reading