Carrier-Assisted Single-Tube Processing Approach for Targeted Proteomics Analysis of Low Numbers of Mammalian Cells

Anal Chem. 2019 Jan 15;91(2):1441-1451. doi: 10.1021/acs.analchem.8b04258. Epub 2018 Dec 28.


Heterogeneity in composition is inherent in all cell populations, even those containing a single cell type. Single-cell proteomics characterization of cell heterogeneity is currently achieved by antibody-based technologies, which are limited by the availability of high-quality antibodies. Herein we report a simple, easily implemented, mass spectrometry (MS)-based targeted proteomics approach, termed cLC-SRM (carrier-assisted liquid chromatography coupled to selected reaction monitoring), for reliable multiplexed quantification of proteins in low numbers of mammalian cells. We combine a new single-tube digestion protocol to process low numbers of cells with minimal loss together with sensitive LC-SRM for protein quantification. This single-tube protocol builds upon trifluoroethanol digestion and further minimizes sample losses by tube pretreatment and the addition of carrier proteins. We also optimized the denaturing temperature and trypsin concentration to significantly improve digestion efficiency. cLC-SRM was demonstrated to have sufficient sensitivity for reproducible detection of most epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) pathway proteins expressed at levels ≥30 000 and ≥3000 copies per cell for 10 and 100 mammalian cells, respectively. Thus, cLC-SRM enables reliable quantification of low to moderately abundant proteins in less than 100 cells and could be broadly useful for multiplexed quantification of important proteins in small subpopulations of cells or in size-limited clinical samples. Further improvements of this method could eventually enable targeted single-cell proteomics when combined with either SRM or other emerging ultrasensitive MS detection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Count
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Proteomics / methods*
  • Temperature


  • ErbB Receptors