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Modeling the Behavior of Coarse-Grained Polymer Chains in Charged Water Droplets: Implications for the Mechanism of Electrospray Ionization

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posted on 12.01.2012, 00:00 by Elias Ahadi, Lars Konermann
The mechanism whereby macromolecular analytes are transferred into the gas phase during the final stages of electrospray ionization (ESI) remains a matter of debate. In this work, we employ molecular dynamics simulations to examine the temporal behavior of nanometer-sized aqueous ESI droplets containing a polymer chain and excess ammonium ions. The polymer is modeled using a coarse-grained framework where a bead-string backbone is decorated with side chains that can be nonpolar, cationic, or anionic. Polymers that adopt compact conformations and that carry a large number of charged side chains remain close to the droplet center, where the charges are extensively hydrated. The ESI process for these compact/hydrophilic macromolecules must involve solvent evaporation to dryness. This behavior is consistent with the charged residue model (CRM). A completely different scenario is encountered for disordered (extended) chains that carry a large number of nonpolar side chains. In this case, the macromolecule tends to be rapidly expelled from the droplet surface in a stepwise sequential fashion. This process produces metastable structures where one end of the extended polymer chain remains connected with the droplet via charge solvation. Disruption of these last interactions will then produce a free gas phase macromolecular ion. The data of this work imply that the ESI process for unfolded/hydrophobic polymers proceeds via an ion evaporation (IEM)-like mechanism that is facilitated by hydrophobic solute/solvent interactions. Our model predicts that the ESI efficiency of the latter scenario is considerably higher than for the CRM. This prediction is verified experimentally through ESI mass spectrometry measurements on myoglobin.