Protons Are Fast and Smart; Proteins Are Slow and Dumb: On the Relationship of Electrospray Ionization Charge States and Conformations.
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We present simple considerations of how differences in time scales of motions of protons, the lightest and fastest chemical moiety, and the much longer time scales associated with the dynamics of proteins, among the heaviest and slowest analytes, may allow many protein conformations from solution to be kinetically trapped during the process of electrospraying protein solutions into the gas phase. In solution, the quantum nature of protons leads them to change locations by tunneling, an instantaneous process; moreover, the Grotthuss mechanism suggests that these small particles can respond nearly instantaneously to the dynamic motions of proteins that occur on much longer time scales. A conformational change is accompanied by favorable or unfavorable variations in the free energy of the system, providing the impetus for solvent protein proton exchange. Thus, as thermal distributions of protein conformations interconvert, protonation states rapidly respond, as specific acidic and basic sites are exposed or protected. In the vacuum of the mass spectrometer, protons become immobilized in locations that are specific to the protein conformations from which they were incorporated. In this way, conformational states from solution are preserved upon electrospraying them into the gas phase. These ideas are consistent with the exquisite sensitivity of electrospray mass spectra to small changes of the local environment that alter protein structure in solution. We might remember this approximation for the protonation of proteins in solution with the colloquial expression-protons are fast and smart; proteins are slow and dumb.