High throughput characterization of combinatorial histone codes

Mol Cell Proteomics. 2009 Oct;8(10):2266-84. doi: 10.1074/mcp.M900238-MCP200. Epub 2009 Aug 4.


We present a novel method utilizing "saltless" pH gradient weak cation exchange-hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography directly coupled to electron transfer dissociation (ETD) mass spectrometry for the automated on-line high throughput characterization of hypermodified combinatorial histone codes. This technique, performed on a low resolution mass spectrometer, displays an improvement over existing methods with an approximately 100-fold reduction in sample requirements and analysis time. The scheme presented is capable of identifying all of the major combinatorial histone codes present in a sample in a 2-h analysis. The large N-terminal histone peptides are eluted by the pH and organic solvent weak cation exchange-hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography gradient and directly introduced via nanoelectrospray ionization into a benchtop linear quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometer equipped with ETD. Each polypeptide is sequenced, and the modification sites are identified by ETD fragmentation. The isobaric trimethyl and acetyl modifications are resolved chromatographically and confidently distinguished by the synthesis of mass spectrometric and chromatographic information. We demonstrate the utility of the method by complete characterization of human histone H3.2 and histone H4 from butyrate-treated cells, but it is generally applicable to the analysis of highly modified peptides. We find this methodology very useful for chromatographic separation of isomeric species that cannot be separated well by any other chromatographic means, leading to less complicated tandem mass spectra. The improved separation and increased sensitivity generated novel information about much less abundant forms. In this method demonstration we report over 200 H3.2 forms and 70 H4 forms, including forms not yet detected in human cells, such as the remarkably highly modified histone H3.2 K4me3K9acK14acK18acK23acK27acK36me3. Such detail provided by our proteomics platform will be essential for determining how histone modifications occur and act in combination to propagate the histone code during transcriptional events and could greatly enable sequencing of the histone component of human epigenomes.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Butyrates / chemistry
  • Chromatography, Liquid / methods*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Histone Code*
  • Histones / chemistry
  • Histones / genetics
  • Humans
  • Isomerism
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Peptides / analysis


  • Butyrates
  • Histones
  • Peptides