Mass spectrometry analysis of protein/peptide S-palmitoylation
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The dynamic S-palmitoylation regulates many intracellular events, including protein trafficking, anchoring, targeting, and protein-protein interactions. Direct detection of S-palmitoylation by conventional liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) methods is challenging because of the tendency of palmitoyl loss during sample preparation and gas phase fragmentation. Additionally, the high hydrophobicity of the palmitoyl group can prevent proper elution of palmitoyl peptides from the commonly used C18 column. Here, we developed a comprehensive strategy tailored for S-palmitoyl detection using three palmitoyl peptide standards. We found that S-palmitoylation was largely preserved in neutral Tris buffer with tris(2-carboxyethyl)phosphine as the reducing agent and that various fragmentation methods provided complementary information for palmitoyl localization. Moreover, S-palmitoyl peptides were efficiently analyzed using a C4 column and the derivatization of free cysteine with a hydrophobic tag allowed relative quantification of palmitoyl peptides and their unmodified counterparts. We further discovered potential complications to S-palmitoylation analysis caused by the use of ProteaseMAXTM, an MS-compatible detergent. The hydrophobic degradation products of ProteaseMAXTM reacted with the free cysteine thiols, generating artifacts that mimic S-acylation and hydroxyfarnesylation. Another MS-compatible detergent, RapiGestTM, did not produce such artifacts, and showed the ability to stabilize S-palmitoylation by preventing thioester hydrolysis and dithiothreitol-induced thioester cleavage. Moreover, we found that the palmitoyl peptide GCpalmLGNAK could undergo intermolecular palmitoyl migration from the cysteine to the peptide N-terminus or the lysine side chain during sample preparation, and this could lead to false discovery of N-palmitoylation. RapiGestTM inhibited such migration, and is thus recommended for S-palmitoyl sample preparation. We then applied the established method to analyze the regulator of G-protein signaling 4 (RGS4) which had been reported to undergo S-palmitoylation by radioactive labeling. It had also been reported that the S-palmitoylation state of RGS4 affects its GTPase activity. With LC-MS/MS analysis, we found that the addition of palmitate to the cell culture medium in metabolic labeling experiments could boost the level of S-palmitoylation, leading to false discovery of new S-palmitoylation site(s). We also noted discrepancies between the S-palmitoylation sites identified by radioactive labeling and by LC-MS/MS analysis. Further studies are needed to evaluate the reliability of S-palmitoyl detection by these two methods.