Automated Annotation of Sphingolipids Including Accurate Identification of Hydroxylation Sites Using MS n Data

Anal Chem. 2020 Oct 20;92(20):14054-14062. doi: 10.1021/acs.analchem.0c03016. Epub 2020 Oct 1.


Sphingolipids constitute a heterogeneous lipid category that is involved in many key cellular functions. For high-throughput analyses of sphingolipids, tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) is the method of choice, offering sufficient sensitivity, structural information, and quantitative precision for detecting hundreds to thousands of species simultaneously. While glycerolipids and phospholipids are predominantly non-hydroxylated, sphingolipids are typically dihydroxylated. However, species containing one or three hydroxylation sites can be detected frequently. This variability in the number of hydroxylation sites on the sphingolipid long-chain base and the fatty acyl moiety produces many more isobaric species and fragments than for other lipid categories. Due to this complexity, the automated annotation of sphingolipid species is challenging, and incorrect annotations are common. In this study, we present an extension of the Lipid Data Analyzer (LDA) "decision rule set" concept that considers the structural characteristics that are specific for this lipid category. To address the challenges inherent to automated annotation of sphingolipid structures from MS/MS data, we first developed decision rule sets using spectra from authentic standards and then tested the applicability on biological samples including murine brain and human plasma. A benchmark test based on the murine brain samples revealed a highly improved annotation quality as measured by sensitivity and reliability. The results of this benchmark test combined with the easy extensibility of the software to other (sphingo)lipid classes and the capability to detect and correctly annotate novel sphingolipid species make LDA broadly applicable to automated sphingolipid analysis, especially in high-throughput settings.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Fatty Acids / chemistry
  • High-Throughput Screening Assays
  • Humans
  • Hydroxylation
  • Medical Records Systems, Computerized / instrumentation*
  • Mice
  • Models, Chemical
  • Plasma / metabolism*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sphingolipids / analysis*
  • Sphingolipids / metabolism*
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry


  • Fatty Acids
  • Sphingolipids