A minimalist model for exploring conformational effects on the electrospray charge state distribution of proteins

J Phys Chem B. 2007 Jun 14;111(23):6534-43. doi: 10.1021/jp070720t. Epub 2007 May 19.


The electrospray ionization (ESI) charge state distribution of proteins is highly sensitive to the protein structure in solution. Unfolded conformations generally form higher charge states than tightly folded structures. The current study employs a minimalist molecular dynamics model for simulating the final stages of the ESI process in order to gain insights into the physical reasons underlying this empirical relationship. The protein is described as a string of 27 beads ("residues"), 9 of which are negatively charged and represent possible protonation sites. The unfolded state of this bead string is a random coil, whereas the native conformation adopts a compact fold. The ESI process is simulated by placing the protein inside a solvent droplet with a 2.5 nm radius consisting of 1600 Lennard-Jones particles. In addition, the droplet contains 14 protons which are modeled as highly mobile point charges. Disintegration of the droplet rapidly releases the protein into the gas phase, resulting in average charge states of 4.8+ and 7.4+ for the folded and unfolded conformation, respectively. The protonation probabilities of individual residues in the folded state reveal a characteristic pattern, with values ranging from 0.2 to 0.8. In contrast, the protonation probabilities of the unfolded protein are more uniform and cover the range from 0.8 to 1.0. The origin of these differences can be traced back to a combination of steric and electrostatic effects. Residues exhibiting a small accessible surface area are less likely to capture a proton, an effect that is exacerbated by partial electrostatic shielding from nearby positive residues. Conversely, sites that are sterically exposed are associated with electrostatic funnels that greatly increase the likelihood of protonation. Unfolding enhances the steric and electrostatic exposure of protonation sites, thereby causing the protein to capture a greater number of protons during the droplet disintegration process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation*
  • Ions
  • Models, Biological*
  • Protein Conformation*
  • Proteins / analysis
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Protons
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization*
  • Static Electricity


  • Ions
  • Proteins
  • Protons