Molecular imaging of biological samples: localization of peptides and proteins using MALDI-TOF MS

Anal Chem. 1997 Dec 1;69(23):4751-60. doi: 10.1021/ac970888i.


Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry (MALDI MS) has been used to generate ion images of samples in one or more mass-to-charge (m/z) values, providing the capability of mapping specific molecules to two-dimensional coordinates of the original sample. The high sensitivity of the technique (low-femtomole to attomole levels for proteins and peptides) allows the study of organized biochemical processes occurring in, for example, mammalian tissue sections. The mass spectrometer is used to determine the molecular weights of the molecular in the surface layers of the tissue. Molecules desorbed from the sample typically are singly protonated, giving an ion at (M + H)+, where M is the molecular mass. The procedure involves coating the tissue section, or a blotted imprint of the section, with a thin layer of energy-absorbing matrix and then analyzing the sample to produce an ordered array of mass spectra, each containing nominal m/z values typically covering a range of over 50,000 Da. Images can be displayed in individual m/z values as a selected ion image, which would localize individual compounds in the tissue, or as summed ion images. MALDI ion images of tissue sections can be obtained directly from tissue slices following preparative steps, and this is demonstrated for the mapping of insulin contained in an islet in a section of rat pancreas, hormone peptides in a small area of a section of rat pituitary, and a small protein bound to the membrane of human mucosa cells. Alternatively, imprints of the tissue can be analyzed by blotting the tissue sections on specially prepared targets containing an adsorbent material, e.g., C-18 coated resin beads. Peptides and small proteins bind to the C-18 and create a positive imprint of the tissue which can then be imaged by the mass spectrometer. This is demonstrated for the MALDI ion image analysis of regions of rat splenic pancreas and for an area of rat pituitary traversing the anterior, intermediate, and posterior regions where localized peptides were mapped. In a single spectrum from the anterior/intermediate lobe of a rat pituitary print, over 50 ions corresponding to the peptides present in this tissue were observed as well as precursors, isoforms, and metabolic fragments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Mouth Mucosa / chemistry
  • Peptides / chemistry*
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Rats
  • Spectrometry, Mass, Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption-Ionization


  • Peptides
  • Proteins