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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Mass spectrometric indentification of formaldehyde-induced modifications of peptides and proteins under in vivo protein cross-linking conditions Toews, Judy


Formaldehyde cross-linking has been used to study protein-protein interactions in cells. Its short spacer arm, ability to permeate through cell membrane and the reversibility of the cross-linking reaction makes this a desirable cross-linker for in vivo studies. Although it has been widely used as a cross-linking reagent, the detailed chemistry behind protein cross-linking is not well understood. In vitro studies conducted under extended incubation periods (2 days) have shown that a multitude of amino acids are reactive to formaldehyde and that residue accessibility appears to play a role in reactivity. How applicable these findings are to formaldehyde cross-linking studies done under in vivo conditions (10-20 min incubations) is unclear. The chemistry of formaldehyde cross-linking was therefore investigated in model peptides under conditions similar to those used in in vivo studies. It was observed that only a subset of amino acids (amino termini and side chains of lysine and tryptophan) that were found reactive under extended incubation times was reactive in the much shorter incubation period. No cross-linking was detected between peptides, and elevating the peptide and formaldehyde concentrations resulted in only a minimal amount of cross-linked peptides. The relationship between residue accessibility and formaldehyde reactivity was assessed in model proteins that contain a more complex tertiary structure. It was shown that the extent of formaldehyde reactivity was dependent on the state of protein unfolding, i.e., solvent accessibility of reactive residues, and that an unfolded protein showed a significantly higher number of formaldehyde-induced modifications than a folded form, with lysine being the predominant reactive site. Formaldehyde treatment of proteins in their native form resulted in a low number of modifications even under an increased incubation time, suggesting that the protein remains folded during the course of the reaction. This is important for in vivo cross-linking studies where specificity and stability of protein-protein interactions is dictated by protein tertiary structure.

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