Native ESI-MS involves the transfer of intact proteins and biomolecular complexes from solution into the gas phase. One potential pitfall is the occurrence of pH-induced changes that can affect the analyte while it is still surrounded by solvent. Most native ESI-MS studies employ neutral aqueous ammonium acetate solutions. It is a widely perpetuated misconception that ammonium acetate buffers the analyte solution at neutral pH. By definition, a buffer consists of a weak acid and its conjugate weak base. The buffering range covers the weak acid pKa ± 1 pH unit. NH4+ and CH3-COO- are not a conjugate acid/base pair, which means that they do not constitute a buffer at pH 7. Dissolution of ammonium acetate salt in water results in pH 7, but this pH is highly labile. Ammonium acetate does provide buffering around pH 4.75 (the pKa of acetic acid) and around pH 9.25 (the pKa of ammonium). This implies that neutral ammonium acetate solutions electrosprayed in positive ion mode will likely undergo acidification down to pH 4.75 ± 1 in the ESI plume. Ammonium acetate nonetheless remains a useful additive for native ESI-MS. It is a volatile electrolyte that can mimic the solvation properties experienced by proteins under physiological conditions. Also, a drop from pH 7 to around pH 4.75 is less dramatic than the acidification that would take place in pure water. It is hoped that the habit of referring to pH 7 solutions as ammonium acetate "buffer" will disappear from the literature. Ammonium acetate "solution" should be used instead. Graphical Abstract ᅟ.
Keywords: Acid/base chemistry; Dissociation equilibrium; Droplet evaporation; Henderson-Hasselbalch equation; Noncovalent complexes in the gas phase.