Cracking the Complex

Using mass spec to study protein-protein interactions

By Jeffrey M. Perkel | November 1, 2015

COURTESY OF IGOR KALTASHOVMass spectrometry is a proteomics workhorse. By precisely measuring polypeptide masses, researchers can identify and sequence those molecules, and characterize whether and how they have been chemically modified. To twist a phrase, by their masses you shall know them.  

But many proteins do not act in isolation. Critical biological processes such as DNA replication, transcription, translation, cell division, and energy generation rely on the action of massive protein assemblies, many of which comprise dozens of subunits. While these clusters are ripe for study, few traditional mass spectrometric methods can handle them.

Indeed, protein complexes are unwieldy for many types of analysis, says Philip Compton, director of instrumentation at the Proteomics Center of Excellence at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Most complexes are held together by noncovalent interactions, assemble only transiently, or are located in the cell membrane—all of which complicate sample preparation, he explains. Also, while some complexes are relatively abundant, others are rare, further thwarting detection and analysis.

For mass spectrometry specifically, however, the problem with analyzing protein complexes, which can weigh in at 500 kDa, is size. “In a mass spec, things of that size have traditionally been fairly difficult to handle,” Compton says. Even if you can deliver them into the spectrometer itself, you need a way to figure out which proteins are present, and in what stoichiometry. Plus, normal sample preparation procedures tend to denature proteins, ripping complexes apart.

Still, researchers are increasingly keen to train their mass specs on intact protein assemblies. The Scientist asked four protein-complex experts about the approaches they use in their own labs. This is what they said.

Determining subunit composition 
GETTING TOGETHER: Lactate dehydrogenase from human skeletal muscle comprises four identical M subunits, shown here in different colors.FVASCONCELLOS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONSRESEARCHER: Philip Compton, Director of Instrumentation, Proteomics Center of Excellence, Northwestern University

PROJECT: High-throughput top-down proteomics

SOLUTION: If protein complexes are onions, Compton needs a way to iteratively peel off the layers to see what’s inside. Working with researchers at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Compton is developing an Orbitrap-based mass spectrometer that can do just that, or perform what is called an MS3 study.

Basically, an MS3 experiment involves weighing all the complexes in a sample fraction—there could be as many as 10 or 15 at a time—grabbing one, smashing it into inert-gas molecules to eject a subunit, weighing and sequencing the cast-off piece, and then repeating the process.

That’s the goal, but because that instrument is not yet built, Compton must temporarily content himself with what he calls a “pseudo-MS3” experiment. Basically, instead of one seamless workflow, the instrument shatters the complex, weighs the pieces that come off it, and then repeats the process, only this time capturing and fragmenting those ejected pieces for subsequent analysis (Anal Chem, 85:11163-73, 2013). “We’re kind of splitting it into these two different steps; that accomplishes essentially the same thing,” Compton says.

Compton and his team are still ironing out the kinks, but they have begun applying the approach to protein complexes involved in metabolism. One of these, lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), is a 145-kDa tetramer comprising M (muscle) and H (heart) subunits that can exist in any of five configurations (MMMM, MMMH, MMHH, MHHH, and HHHH). Using the MS3 workflow, Compton says he can differentiate these “multiproteoform assemblies,” as well as any posttranslational modifications those subunits may bear, and determine the abundance of each. Now he hopes to apply the approach to quantify LDH differences between cell and tissue types.

EXTEND YOUR RANGE: Compton’s team uses a souped-up version of Thermo Fisher’s Orbitrap-based Q Exactive HF mass spectrometer, which among other things features a fourfold wider mass range. Other researchers can perform similar work using Thermo’s Exactive Plus EMR Orbitrap system, an off-the-shelf, “extended mass range” instrument. But, because the EMR lacks the “high-mass isolation capabilities” of Compton’s bespoke hardware, the application range is more limited, he says. “You can still do a similar experiment to us, provided that you have one clean [purified] complex.”

Mapping protein-protein interaction interfaces
RESEARCHER: Igor Kaltashov, Professor of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts Amherst

PROJECT: Probing the interactions of candidate protein therapeutics with their molecular targets

SOLUTION: Most attempts at studying protein complexes deliver them to the mass spec intact. Kaltashov takes a different approach, using a technique called hydrogen-deuterium exchange (HDX).  

It works like this: proteins (like other molecules) pass hydrogen atoms back and forth with the solvent that surrounds them. Normally, one hydrogen is simply swapped for another, and nobody is the wiser. But in deuterated (“heavy”) water, as hydrogens are swapped at the protein surface, the protein gets slightly heavier as deuterium molecules replace some of the hydrogens. This allows researchers to probe how accessible different pieces of the protein are to the solvent, based on how much deuterium they pick up from the buffer, and how quickly they do so.

As Kaltashov explains, HDX can be used to study any event that might alter the accessibility of different protein regions to the solvent that surrounds them. Those events include protein folding and aggregation, but also protein-protein interactions. “Once two proteins bind to each other, solvent would be excluded from the interface, and that would be reflected in the hydrogen-deuterium exchange kinetics,” he says. That change is evident when compared to the proteins in isolation.

In a 2009 review, Kaltashov demonstrated the process with transferrin, an iron transport protein, and its receptor. After undergoing the exchange reaction, the proteins were fragmented to peptides and analyzed piecemeal. Some peptides exhibited no hydrogen-deuterium exchange, he says. That suggests they were never exposed to solvent because they were buried inside the protein core. Other peptides exchanged hydrogens with the solvent at the same rate regardless of receptor binding, indicating they are not part of the protein-receptor interface. A third set of peptides, though, exhibited clear differences in the presence and absence of receptor, marking those as elements of the protein-protein interaction domain (Anal Chem, 81:7892-99, 2009).

“You can actually localize these sites and obtain information both on the strength of the binding [interactions] and the structural characteristics of the interface region,” Kaltashov says.

WATCH OUT FOR DISULFIDES: If you’re going to try bottom-up HDX experiments, be careful of disulfide bonds, Kaltashov says. Pepsin is one of the very few proteinases that can efficiently digest a protein into its composite peptides under HDX experimental conditions, but it struggles when multiple disulfide bonds are present. In 2014, Kaltashov’s lab published two solutions to that problem. The first employs a fragmentation technique called electron capture dissociation (ECD) to break the disulfide linkage in the mass spec (Anal Chem, 86:5225-31, 2014); the second skips the pepsin digestion altogether—a strategy called top-down analysis (Anal Chem, 86:7293-98, 2014).

Determining surface topology of protein complexes
SUSSING OUT THE SURFACE: Protein topology can be probed by firing low-energy electrons (white circles) at intact protein complexes within a high-resolution mass spectrometer. That reaction, called electron capture dissociation, causes the protein complex to fracture on its surface, revealing the exposed amino acid residues.COURTESY OF PIRIYA WONGKONGKATHEP AND HUILIN LI, UCLARESEARCHER: Joseph Loo, Professor of Biological Chemistry, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles

PROJECT: Studying protein-ligand and protein-protein interactions

SOLUTION: Loo is less interested in complex identification than in how the protein subunits assemble. Specifically, he wants to know which amino acid residues lie on the complex’s surface and which are buried inside or interacting with ligands.

It’s a question of structural biology, he explains: “How is this thing folded in a way that these residues are on the outside?”

To work that out, Loo combines high-resolution Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FTICR) with electron-capture dissociation (ECD), a mass spec fragmentation method in which an ion in the mass spectrometer interacts with free electrons, causing the protein to fracture along its peptide backbone. By measuring the mass of those fragments with high precision, researchers can determine the protein’s amino acid sequence.

In Loo’s case, though, that fragmentation is not uniform along the length of the protein. Proteins usually are denatured for mass spectrometry analysis, but the protein complexes in his studies are intact—a process called native mass spectrometry. Fragmentation thus occurs preferentially on the surface of the complex, like the cracks in the shell of a hard-boiled egg. “You get limited sequence information, but that sequence information comes from regions that are specific to its 3-D structure,” he says (Anal Chem, 86:317-20, 2014).

Also evident in such data sets are protein–small molecule interactions. As the proteins break apart, Loo explains, ligands often remain attached to the polypeptide shards that are produced. In one recent publication, for instance, his team mapped zinc binding sites in eukaryotic alcohol dehydrogenase, a 147-kDa tetrameric complex (J Am Soc Mass Spectrom, 25:2060-8, 2014).

Still, Loo admits, the technique “is not really ready for prime time.” His team is collecting ECD data on a bank of proteins of known structure to ensure the data they collect really do reflect protein topology. In the meantime, they are working to extend the size of the complexes they can analyze. The technique’s current limit is 800 kDa.

GO NATIONAL: FTICR mass spectrometers offer top-of-the-line accuracy and resolution, with price tags to match. Few researchers have direct access to them, Loo says, but they can always try the national laboratories. Both the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have user facilities open to worthy projects.

Determining the architecture of protein complexes
HIT THE WALL, JACK: When it comes to molecular collision in a mass spectrometer, size matters. Collide a complex with small gas molecules, and proteins in the complex will simply unravel (top). By smacking them into a “wall”—a process called surface-induced dissociation—the complex dissociates to reveal its underlying architecture.COURTESY OF VICKI WYSOCKIRESEARCHER: Vicki Wysocki, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Ohio State University

PROJECT: Instrumentation development for whole-complex analysis

SOLUTION: An analytical chemist by training, Wysocki focuses on instrumentation development for protein-complex analysis. Among the discoveries in her lab is a method called surface-induced dissociation (SID).

Like many other fragmentation approaches, SID works by forcing an ion in the mass spectrometer to collide with another object. Usually that object is a small gas molecule, with the energy of collision sufficient to crack the peptide backbone. But for large protein complexes, bigger is better, and the collision partner in SID is as big as it can get: the method slams protein ions of interest into a nonreactive surface inside the instrument—essentially, a wall—causing complexes to fracture into subcomplexes that reveal the assembly’s inner architecture.

Wysocki combined this approach with ion-mobility separation—a kind of gas-phase electrophoresis that resolves molecules by their size and shape—to dissect an enzyme involved in antibiotic production. The enzyme, they found, has two copies each of three subunits, alpha, beta, and gamma, arranged as a pair of triads sitting on top of one another, with the alpha and beta subunits of one triad linked more tightly to each other than either is to gamma (Anal Chem, 83:2862-65, 2011).  

Such information can be valuable to protein engineers, Wysocki says, especially as this particular complex otherwise falls into a structural biology knowledge gap: “It doesn’t crystallize, and it’s too small for the cryoEM and a little bit large for NMR,” she says. “And so, mass spec turned out to be a great tool.”

CHOOSE MASS: Mass spec may not be the only method for quickly working out protein structure, but it surely is the fastest, Wysocki says. She recalls one instance when a colleague sent over a complex that his group couldn’t crack. “In one afternoon, my student gave them a prediction of the structure: this one’s a heptamer, with a large subunit sitting atop a hexameric ring.” Even if the experiment doesn’t work, she adds, that fast turnaround time can be a boon, as collaborators can get rapid feedback for tweaking their experimental conditions. “Mass is a great thing.” 

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