Coupling Isoelectric Focusing Gel Electrophoresis to Mass Spectrometry by Electrostatic Spray Ionization

Gel electrophoresis has been used for decades as a high-resolution separation technique for proteins and protein isomers but has been limited in the coupling with MS because of low throughput and poor automaticity compared with LC–MS. In this work, we have developed an ambient ionization strategy, electrostatic spray ionization, for in situ ionization of proteins or peptides inside a surfactant-free polyacrylamide gel. The samples can be first separated by isoelectric focusing in a gel and then quickly in situ detected by scanning the gel with the electrostatic spray ionization mass spectrometry. With this strategy, nanograms of proteins or peptides inside a band are enough to be ionized for MS detection. This method for protein/peptide spots visualization is sensitive, providing sample molecular weight information while avoiding spot staining and chemical extraction procedures that can introduce contaminants and sample loss. Proof-of-principle results have demonstrated that the electrostatic spray ionization can produce sample ions from a complex background, and with a spatial resolution matching the isoelectric focusing, it is therefore a good choice to couple directly isoelectric focusing gel electrophoresis with mass spectrometry.