Collision-Induced Dissociation of Electrosprayed Protein Complexes: An All-Atom Molecular Dynamics Model with Mobile Protons

Electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS) has become an indispensable technique for examining noncovalent protein complexes. Collision-induced dissociation (CID) of these multiply protonated gaseous ions usually culminates in ejection of a single subunit with a disproportionately large amount of charge. Experiments suggest that this process involves subunit unfolding prior to separation from the residual complex, as well as H<sup>+</sup> migration onto the unravelling chain. Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations are a promising avenue for gaining detailed insights into these CID events. Unfortunately, typical MD algorithms do not allow for mobile protons. Here we address this limitation by implementing a strategy that combines atomistic force fields (such as OPLS/AA and CHARMM36) with a proton hopping algorithm, focusing on the tetrameric complexes transthyretin and streptavidin. Protons are redistributed over all acidic and basic sites in 20 ps intervals, subject to an energy function that reflects electrostatic interactions and proton affinities. Our simulations predict that nativelike conformers at the onset of collisional heating contain multiple salt bridges. Collisional heating initially causes subtle structural changes that lead to a gradual decline of these zwitterionic patterns. Many of the MD runs show gradual unfolding of a single subunit in conjunction with H<sup>+</sup> migration, culminating in subunit separation from the complex. However, there are also instances where two or more chains start to unfold simultaneously, giving rise to charge competition. The scission point where the “winning” subunit separates from the complex can be attained for different degrees of unfolding, giving rise to product ions in various charge states. The simulated product ion distributions are in close agreement with experimental CID data. Proton enrichment in the departing subunit is driven by charge–charge repulsion, but the combination of salt bridge depletion, charge migration, and proton affinity causes surprising compensation effects among the various energy terms. It appears that this work provides the most detailed account to date of the mechanism whereby noncovalent protein complexes disassemble during CID.