Utility of formaldehyde cross-linking and mass spectrometry in the study of protein-protein interactions

J Mass Spectrom. 2008 Jun;43(6):699-715. doi: 10.1002/jms.1415.


For decades, formaldehyde has been routinely used to cross-link proteins in cells, tissue, and in some instances, even entire organisms. Due to its small size, formaldehyde can readily permeate cell walls and membranes, resulting in efficient cross-linking, i.e. the formation of covalent bonds between proteins, DNA, and other reactive molecules. Indeed, formaldehyde cross-linking is an instrumental component of many mainstream analytical/cell biology techniques including chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) of protein-DNA complexes found in nuclei; immunohistological analysis of protein expression and localization within cells, tissues, and organs; and mass spectrometry (MS)-compatible silver-staining methodologies used to visualize low abundance proteins in polyacrylamide gels. However, despite its exquisite suitability for use in the analysis of protein environments within cells, formaldehyde has yet to be commonly employed in the directed analysis of protein-protein interactions and cellular networks. The general purpose of this article is to discuss recent advancements in the use of formaldehyde cross-linking in combination with MS-based methodologies. Key advantages and limitations to the use of formaldehyde over other cross-linkers and technologies currently used to study protein-protein interactions are highlighted, and formaldehyde-based experimental approaches that are proving very promising in their ability to accurately and efficiently identify novel protein-protein and multiprotein interaction complexes are presented.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Linking Reagents / chemistry*
  • DNA / chemistry
  • Formaldehyde / chemistry*
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Protein Binding
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteomics / methods*


  • Cross-Linking Reagents
  • Proteins
  • Formaldehyde
  • DNA