Tandem mass spectrometry (MS) of large protein complexes has proven to be capable of assessing the stoichiometry, connectivity, and structural details of multiprotein assemblies. While the utility of tandem MS is without question, a deeper understanding of the mechanism of protein complex dissociation will undoubtedly drive the technology into new areas of enhanced utility and information content. We present here the systematic analysis of the charge state dependent decay of the noncovalently associated complex of human transthyretin, generated by collision-induced dissociation (CID). A crown ether based charge reduction approach was applied to generate intact transthyretin tetramers with charge states ranging from 15+ to 7+. These nine charge states were subsequently analyzed by means of tandem MS and ion mobility spectrometry. Three different charge-dependent mechanistic regimes were identified: (1) common asymmetric dissociation involving ejection of unfolded monomers, (2) expulsion of folded monomers from the intact tetramer, and (3) release of C-terminal peptide fragments from the intact complex. Taken together, the results presented highlight the potential of charge state modulation as a method for directing the course of gas-phase dissociation and unfolding of protein complexes.
Alternate dissociation pathways identified in charge-reduced protein complex ions