Direct measurement of various sterols in crude lipid extracts in a single experiment from limited biological samples is challenging. Current mass spectrometry (MS) based approaches usually require chemical derivatization before subjecting to MS analysis. Here, we present a derivatization-independent method for analyzing various sterols, including cholesterol and its congeners, using liquid chromatography and atmospheric pressure chemical ionization mass spectrometry. Based on the specific tandem mass spectrometry pattern of cholesterol, multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) transitions were used to quantify free cholesterol and its fatty acyl esters. Several cholesterol oxidation products could also be measured using the upfront liquid chromatography separation and specific MRM transitions. The method was validated alongside established enzymatic assays in measuring total cholesterol. As a proof of concept, we analyzed plasma sterols in rabbits administrated with a high cholesterol diet (HCD) which is a classical atherosclerotic model. Free cholesterol, cholesterol esters, 7-hydroxycholesterol, and 7-ketocholesterol were elevated in plasma of rabbits on HCD. This method could also serve as an excellent tool for quantitative analysis of other sterols such as ergosterol and sitosterol in other organisms beside mammalian. In Saccharomyces cerevisiae, our results indicated dramatic increases of the ratio of ergosterol esters to free ergosterol in both yeh2Δ and tgl1Δ cells, which are consistent with the function of the respective enzymes.
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