Probing Protein Denaturation during Size-Exclusion Chromatography Using Native Mass Spectrometry

Iro K. Ventouri, Daniel B.A. Malheiro, Robert L.C. Voeten, Sander Kok, Maarten Honing, Govert W. Somsen, Rob Haselberg*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Size-exclusion chromatography employing aqueous mobile phases with volatile salts at neutral pH combined with electrospray-ionization mass spectrometry (SEC-ESI-MS) is a useful tool to study proteins in their native state. However, whether the applied eluent conditions actually prevent protein-stationary phase interactions, and/or protein denaturation, often is not assessed. In this study, the effects of volatile mobile phase additives on SEC retention and ESI of proteins were thoroughly investigated. Myoglobin was used as the main model protein, and eluents of varying ionic strength and pH were applied. The degree of interaction between protein and stationary phase was evaluated by calculating the SEC distribution coefficient. Protein-ion charge state distributions obtained during offline and online native ESI-MS were used to monitor alterations in protein structure. Interestingly, most of the supposedly mild eluent compositions induced nonideal SEC behavior and/or protein unfolding. SEC experiments revealed that the nature, ionic strength, and pH of the eluent affected protein retention. Protein-stationary phase interactions were effectively avoided using ammonium acetate at ionic strengths above 0.1 M. Direct-infusion ESI-MS showed that the tested volatile eluent salts seem to follow the Hofmeister series: no denaturation was induced using ammonium acetate (kosmotropic), whereas ammonium formate and bicarbonate (both chaotropic) caused structural changes. Using a mobile phase of 0.2 M ammonium acetate (pH 6.9), several proteins (i.e., myoglobin, carbonic anhydrase, and cytochrome c) could be analyzed by SEC-ESI-MS using different column chemistries without compromising their native state. Overall, with SEC-ESI-MS, the effect of nonspecific interactions between protein and stationary phase on the protein structure can be studied, even revealing gradual structural differences along a peak.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4292-4300
Number of pages9
JournalAnalytical chemistry
Issue number6
Early online date28 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - 17 Mar 2020


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