Chemical cross-linking with NHS esters: a systematic study on amino acid reactivities

J Mass Spectrom. 2009 May;44(5):694-706. doi: 10.1002/jms.1544.


Structure elucidation of tertiary or quaternary protein structures by chemical cross-linking and mass spectrometry (MS) has recently gained importance. To locate the cross-linker modification, dedicated software is applied to analyze the mass or tandem mass spectra (MS/MS). Such software requires information on target amino acids to limit the data analysis time. The most commonly used homobifunctional N-hydroxy succinimide (NHS) esters are often described as reactive exclusively towards primary amines, although side reactions with tyrosine and serine have been reported. Our goal was to systematically study the reactivity of NHS esters and derive some general rules for their attack of nucleophilic amino acid side chains in peptides. We therefore studied the cross-linking reactions of synthesized and commercial model peptides with disuccinimidyl suberate (DSS). The first reaction site in all cases was expectedly the alpha-NH(2)-group of the N-terminus or the epsilon-NH(2)-group of lysine. As soon as additional cross-linkers were attached or loops were formed, other amino acids were also involved in the reaction. In addition to the primary amino groups, serine, threonine and tyrosine showed significant reactivity due to the effect of neighboring amino acids by intermediate or permanent Type-1 cross-link formation. The reactivity is highly dependent on the pH and on adjacent amino acids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / chemistry*
  • Cross-Linking Reagents / chemistry*
  • Esters
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Insulin / chemistry
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Protein Conformation
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Sequence Analysis, Protein
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption-Ionization / methods*
  • Succinimides / chemistry*
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry / methods*


  • Amino Acids
  • Cross-Linking Reagents
  • Esters
  • Insulin
  • Peptides
  • Proteins
  • Succinimides
  • N-hydroxysuccinimide
  • disuccinimidyl suberate