Spatial epi-proteomics enabled by histone post-translational modification analysis from low-abundance clinical samples

Clin Epigenetics. 2021 Jul 28;13(1):145. doi: 10.1186/s13148-021-01120-7.


Background: Increasing evidence linking epigenetic mechanisms and different diseases, including cancer, has prompted in the last 15 years the investigation of histone post-translational modifications (PTMs) in clinical samples. Methods allowing the isolation of histones from patient samples followed by the accurate and comprehensive quantification of their PTMs by mass spectrometry (MS) have been developed. However, the applicability of these methods is limited by the requirement for substantial amounts of material.

Results: To address this issue, in this study we streamlined the protein extraction procedure from low-amount clinical samples and tested and implemented different in-gel digestion strategies, obtaining a protocol that allows the MS-based analysis of the most common histone PTMs from laser microdissected tissue areas containing as low as 1000 cells, an amount approximately 500 times lower than what is required by available methods. We then applied this protocol to breast cancer patient laser microdissected tissues in two proof-of-concept experiments, identifying differences in histone marks in heterogeneous regions selected by either morphological evaluation or MALDI MS imaging.

Conclusions: These results demonstrate that analyzing histone PTMs from very small tissue areas and detecting differences from adjacent tumor regions is technically feasible. Our method opens the way for spatial epi-proteomics, namely the investigation of epigenetic features in the context of tissue and tumor heterogeneity, which will be instrumental for the identification of novel epigenetic biomarkers and aberrant epigenetic mechanisms.

Keywords: Epigenetics; Histone post-translational modifications; Laser microdissection; MALDI-MSI; Mass spectrometry; Proteomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor / drug effects
  • DNA Methylation
  • Histones / drug effects*
  • Histones / genetics
  • Humans
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational / genetics*
  • Proteomics / methods
  • Proteomics / statistics & numerical data


  • Histones