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Release of Native-like Gaseous Proteins from Electrospray Droplets via the Charged Residue Mechanism: Insights from Molecular Dynamics Simulations

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posted on 07.10.2015, 00:00 by Robert G. McAllister, Haidy Metwally, Yu Sun, Lars Konermann
The mechanism whereby gaseous protein ions are released from charged solvent droplets during electrospray ionization (ESI) remains a matter of debate. Also, it is unclear to what extent electrosprayed proteins retain their solution structure. Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations offer insights into the temporal evolution of protein systems. Surprisingly, there have been no all-atom simulations of the protein ESI process to date. The current work closes this gap by investigating the behavior of protein-containing aqueous nanodroplets that carry excess positive charge. We focus on “native ESI”, where proteins initially adopt their biologically active solution structures. ESI proceeds while the protein remains entrapped within the droplet. Protein release into the gas phase occurs upon solvent evaporation to dryness. Droplet shrinkage is accompanied by ejection of charge carriers (Na+ for the conditions chosen here), keeping the droplet at ∼85% of the Rayleigh limit throughout its life cycle. Any remaining charge carriers bind to the protein as the final solvent molecules evaporate. The outcome of these events is largely independent of the initial protein charge and the mode of charge carrier binding. ESI charge states and collision cross sections of the MD structures agree with experimental data. Our results confirm the Rayleigh/charged residue model (CRM). Field emission of excess Na+ plays an ancillary role by governing the net charge of the shrinking droplet. Models that envision protein ejection from the droplet are not supported. Most nascent CRM ions retain native-like conformations. For unfolded proteins ESI likely proceeds along routes that are different from the native state mechanism explored here.

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