Macromolecular mass spectrometry and electron microscopy as complementary tools for investigation of the heterogeneity of bacteriophage portal assemblies

J Struct Biol. 2007 Feb;157(2):371-83. doi: 10.1016/j.jsb.2006.09.003. Epub 2006 Sep 19.


The success of electron-cryo microscopy (cryo-EM) and image reconstruction of cyclic oligomers, such as the viral and bacteriophage portals, depends on the accurate knowledge of their order of symmetry. A number of statistical methods of image analysis address this problem, but often do not provide unambiguous results. Direct measurement of the oligomeric state of multisubunit protein assemblies is difficult when the number of subunits is large and one subunit renders only a small increment to the full size of the oligomer. Moreover, when mixtures of different stochiometries are present techniques such as analytical centrifugation or size-exclusion chromatography are also less helpful. Here, we use electrospray ionization mass spectrometry to directly determine the oligomeric states of the in vitro assembled portal oligomers of the phages P22, Phi-29 and SPP1, which range in mass from 430 kDa to about 1 million Da. Our data unambiguously reveal that the oligomeric states of Phi-29 and SPP1 portals were 12 and 13, respectively, in good agreement with crystallographic and electron microscopy data. However, in vitro assembled P22 portals were a mixture of 11- and 12-mer species in an approximate ratio of 2:1, respectively. A subsequent reference-free alignment of electron microscopy images of the P22 portal confirmed this mixture of oligomeric states. We conclude that macromolecular mass spectrometry is a valuable tool in structural biology that can aide in the determination of oligomeric states and symmetry of assemblies, providing a good starting point for improved image analysis of cryo-EM data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophages / physiology*
  • Capsid Proteins / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli / virology
  • Microscopy, Electron*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Polymers / chemistry
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization*
  • Viral Proteins / chemistry
  • Virus Assembly*


  • Capsid Proteins
  • Polymers
  • Viral Proteins
  • portal protein, Bacteriophage SPP1
  • portal protein, bacteriophage P22
  • portal protein, bacteriophage phi29