Detection and identification of sub-nanogram levels of protein in a nanoLC-trypsin-MS system.
Proteomic workflows involving liquid-based protein separations are an alternative to gel-based protein analysis, however the trypsin digestion procedure is usually difficult to implement, particularly when processing low abundance proteins from capillary column effluent. To convert the protein to peptides for the purpose of identification, current protocols require several sample handling steps, and sample losses become an issue. In this study, we present an improved system that conducts reversed-phase protein chromatography and rapid on-line tryptic digestion requiring sub-nanogram quantities of protein. This system employs a novel mirror-gradient concept that allows for dynamic titration of the column effluent to create optimal conditions for real-time tryptic digestion. The purpose behind this development was to improve the limits of detection of the online concept, to support flow-based alternatives to gel-based proteomics and to simplify the characterization of low abundance proteins. Using test mixtures of proteins, we show that peptide mass fingerprinting with high sequence representation can be easily achieved at the 20 fmol level, with detection limits down to 5 fmol (85 pg myoglobin). Limits of identification using standard data-dependent MS/MS experiments are as low as 10 fmol. These results suggest that the nanoLC-trypsin-MS/MS system could represent an alternative to the conventional "1D-gel to MS" proteomic strategy.