Molecular mass spectrometry (MS) analysis of protein phosphorylation is partially limited by the molecular specie specificity of the analytical responses that might impair both qualitative and quantitative performances. Elemental MS, such as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) can overcome these drawbacks; in fact, analytical performance is theoretically independent of the molecular structure of a target analyte naturally containing the elements of interest. Nevertheless, isobaric interferences derived from sample matrix and laboratory environment can hinder the quantitative determination of both phosphorus (P) and sulfur (S) as (31)P(+) and (32)S(+) by inductively coupled plasma quadrupole mass spectrometry (ICP-QMS) under standard plasma conditions. These interferences may be overcome by quantifying P and S as oxide ions (31)P(16)O(+) and (32)S(16)O(+), respectively. In this study, we present a systematic investigation on the effect of plasma instrumental conditions on the oxide ion responses by a design of experiment approach for the simultaneous ICP-QMS determination of P and S ((31)P(16)O(+) and (32)S(16)O(+), respectively) in protein samples without the use of dynamic reaction, collision reaction cells or pre-addition of oxygen as reactant gas in the torch. The proposed method was evaluated in terms of limit of detection, limit of quantification, linearity, repeatability, and trueness. Moreover, detection and quantification capabilities of the optimized method were compared to the standard plasma mode for determination of (31)P(+) and (34)S(+). Spectral and non-spectral interferences affecting the quantification of (31)P(+), (31)P(16)O(+) and (32)S(16)O(+) were also studied. The suitability of inorganic elemental standards for P and S quantification in proteins was assessed. The method was applied to quantify the phosphorylation stoichiometry of commercially available caseins (bovine beta-casein, native and dephosphorylated alpha-casein) and results were confirmed by Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization Time of Flight MS analysis. We demonstrate that ICP-QMS, by quantifying P and S as oxide ions, was able to accurately calculate the degree of phosphorylation of beta-casein and alpha-casein and to detect specific partial enzymatic dephosphorylation. The collected results might lead to further development of ICP-QMS interfaces optimized for protein phosphorylation studies and for proteomics investigations.
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