Background: Electrospray ionization (ESI) mass spectrometry is a powerful new approach for analyzing biomolecules and biomolecular complexes. Previous studies have provided evidence that non-covalent biomolecular complexes can be observed by ESI mass spectrometry; it is not clear, however, whether the native conformation of the biomolecules is maintained throughout the ionization and analysis process. We set out to address this question using live viruses.
Results: Viral ions have been generated in the gas phase using electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. These ions have been collected, following ion filtering through the mass analyzer, and then analyzed by transmission electron microscopy. Transmission electron microscopy revealed that rice yellow mottle virus and tobacco mosaic virus retained their respective spherical and rod-like ultrastructure. The viability of the isolated tobacco mosaic virus was confirmed by inoculation and infection of tobacco plants.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate the utility of electrospray for supramolecular complexes with molecular weights of over 40 million Da and offer conclusive evidence that native biomolecular structures can be conserved through the electrospray process.