Proteins are dynamic molecules that exhibit conformational flexibility to function properly. Well-known examples of this are allosteric regulation of protein activity and ligand-induced conformational changes in protein receptors. Detailed knowledge of the conformational properties of proteins is therefore pertinent to both basic and applied research, including drug development, since the majority of drugs target protein receptors and a growing number of drugs introduced to the market are therapeutic peptides or proteins. X-ray crystallography provides a static picture at atomic resolution of the lowest-energy structure of the native ensemble. There is a growing need for sensitive analytical tools to explore all of the significant molecular structures in the conformational landscape of proteins. Hydrogen/deuterium exchange monitored by mass spectrometry (HDX-MS) has recently emerged as a powerful method for characterizing protein conformational dynamics. The basis of this method is the fact that backbone amides in stable hydrogen-bonded structures (e.g., α-helices and β-sheets) are protected against exchange with the aqueous solvent. All protein structures are dynamic, however, and eventually all of the protecting hydrogen bonds will transiently break as the protein--according to thermodynamic principles--cycles through partially unfolded states that correspond to excited free energy levels. As a result, all of the backbone amides will eventually become temporarily solvent-exposed and exchange-competent over time. Consequently, a folded protein in D2O will gradually incorporate deuterium into its backbone amides, and the kinetics of the process can be readily monitored by mass spectrometry. The deuterium uptake kinetics for the intact protein (global exchange kinetics) represents the sum of the exchange kinetics for the individual backbone amides. Local exchange kinetics is typically achieved by using pepsin digestion under quench conditions (i.e., under cold acidic conditions where the amide hydrogen exchange rate is slowed by many orders of magnitude). The ability to localize the individual deuterated residues (the spatial resolution) is determined by the size (typically ∼7-15 residues) and the number of peptic peptides. These peptides provide a relatively coarse-grained picture of the protein dynamics. A fundamental understanding of the relationship between protein function/dysfunction and conformational dynamics requires in many cases higher resolution and ultimately single-residue resolution. In this Account, we summarize our efforts to achieve single-residue deuterium levels in proteins by electron-based or laser-induced gas-phase fragmentation methods. A crucial analytical requirement for this approach is that the pattern of deuterium labeling from solution is retained in the gas-phase fragment ions. It is therefore essential to control and minimize any occurrence of gas-phase randomization of the solution deuterium label (H/D scrambling) during the MS experiment. For this purpose, we have developed model peptide probes to accurately measure the onset and extent of H/D scrambling. Our analytical procedures to control the occurrence of H/D scrambling are detailed along with the physical parameters that induce it during MS analysis. In light of the growing use of gas-phase dissociation experiments to measure the HDX of proteins in order to obtain a detailed characterization and understanding of the dynamic conformations and interactions of proteins at the molecular level, we discuss the perspectives and challenges of future high-resolution HDX-MS methodology.
Accounts of Chemical Research, 2014, Vol 47, Issue 10, p. 3018-27