Charge carrier field emission determines the number of charges on native state proteins in electrospray ionization

J Am Chem Soc. 2008 Jun 4;130(22):6926-7. doi: 10.1021/ja801280c. Epub 2008 May 8.


Although multiple charging in electrospray ionization (ESI) is essential to protein mass spectrometry, the underlying mechanism of multiple charging has not been explicated. Here, we present a new theory to describe ESI of native-state proteins and predict the number of excess charges on proteins in ESI. The theory proposes that proteins are ionized as charged residues in ESI, as they retain residual excess charges after solvent evaporation and do not desorb from charged ESI droplets. However, their charge state is not determined by the Rayleigh limit of a droplet of similar size to the protein; rather, their final charge state is determined by the electric field-induced emission of small charged solute ions and clusters from protein-containing ESI droplets. This theory predicts that the number of charges on a protein in ESI should be directly proportional to the square of the gas-phase protein diameter and to E*, the critical electric field strength at which ion emission from droplets occurs. This critical field strength is determined by the properties of the excess charge carriers (i.e., the solute) in droplets. Charge-state measurements of native-state proteins with molecular masses in the 5-76 kDa range in ammonium acetate and triethylammonium bicarbonate are in excellent agreement with theoretical predictions and strongly support the mechanism of protein ESI proposed here.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Electrospray Ionization / methods*


  • Proteins