Hunting for Unexpected Post-Translational Modifications by Spectral Library Searching With Tier-Wise Scoring

J Proteome Res. 2014 May 2;13(5):2262-71. doi: 10.1021/pr401006g. Epub 2014 Apr 2.


Discovering novel post-translational modifications (PTMs) to proteins and detecting specific modification sites on proteins is one of the last frontiers of proteomics. At present, hunting for post-translational modifications remains challenging in widely practiced shotgun proteomics workflows due to the typically low abundance of modified peptides and the greatly inflated search space as more potential mass shifts are considered by the search engines. Moreover, most popular search methods require that the user specifies the modification(s) for which to search; therefore, unexpected and novel PTMs will not be detected. Here a new algorithm is proposed to apply spectral library searching to the problem of open modification searches, namely, hunting for PTMs without prior knowledge of what PTMs are in the sample. The proposed tier-wise scoring method intelligently looks for unexpected PTMs by allowing mass-shifted peak matches but only when the number of matches found is deemed statistically significant. This allows the search engine to search for unexpected modifications while maintaining its ability to identify unmodified peptides effectively at the same time. The utility of the method is demonstrated using three different data sets, in which the numbers of spectrum identifications to both unmodified and modified peptides were substantially increased relative to a regular spectral library search as well as to another open modification spectral search method, pMatch.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Databases, Protein
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Peptide Library
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Peptides / metabolism
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational*
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteins / metabolism
  • Proteomics / methods*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Search Engine
  • Software*


  • Peptide Library
  • Peptides
  • Proteins