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BOX 3-2 WORKING IN BIOCHEMISTRY (continued from previous page)

peptide, each molecule of which has a charge somewhere along its length, then travels through a vacuum chamber between the two mass spectrometers. In this collision cell, the peptide is further fragmented by high-energy impact with a "collision gas," a small amount of a noble gas such as helium or argon that is bled into the vacuum chamber. This procedure is designed to fragment many of the peptide molecules in the sample, with each individual peptide broken in only one place, on average. Most breaks occur at pep-tide bonds. This fragmentation does not involve the addition of water (it is done in a near-vacuum), so the products may include molecular ion radicals such as carbonyl radicals (Fig. 2a, bottom). The charge on the original peptide is retained on one of the fragments generated from it.

The second mass spectrometer then measures the m/z ratios of all the charged fragments (uncharged fragments are not detected). This generates one or more sets of peaks. A given set of peaks (Fig. 2b) consists of all the charged fragments that were generated by breaking the same type of bond (but at different points in the peptide) and are derived from the same side of the bond breakage, either the carboxyl- or ammo-terminal side. Each successive peak in a given set has one less amino acid than the peak before. The difference in mass from peak to peak identifies the amino acid that was lost in each case, thus revealing the sequence of the peptide. The only ambiguities involve leucine and isoleucine, which have the same mass.

The charge on the peptide can be retained on either the carboxyl- or amino-terminal fragment, and bonds other than the peptide bond can be broken in the fragmentation process, with the result that multiple sets of peaks are usually generated. The two most prominent sets generally consist of charged fragments derived from breakage of the peptide bonds. The set consisting of the carboxyl-terminal fragments can be unambiguously distinguished from that consisting of the amino-terminal fragments. Because the bond breaks generated between the spectrometers (in the collision cell) do not yield full carboxyl and amino groups at the sites of the breaks, the only intact a-amino and a-carboxyl groups on the peptide fragments are those at the very ends (Fig. 2a). The two sets of fragments can thereby be identified by the resulting slight differences in mass. The amino acid sequence derived from one set can be confirmed by the other, improving the confidence in the sequence information obtained.

Even a short sequence is often enough to permit unambiguous association of a protein with its gene, if the gene sequence is known. Sequencing by mass spectrometry cannot replace the Edman degradation procedure for the sequencing of long polypeptides, but it is ideal for proteomics research aimed at cataloging the hundreds of cellular proteins that might be separated on a two-dimensional gel. In the coming decades, detailed genomic sequence data will be available from hundreds, eventually thousands, of organisms. The ability to rapidly associate proteins with genes using mass spectrometry will greatly facilitate the exploitation of this extraordinary information resource.

Small Peptides and Proteins Can Be Chemically Synthesized

Many peptides are potentially useful as pharmacologic agents, and their production is of considerable commercial importance. There are three ways to obtain a peptide: (1) purification from tissue, a task often made difficult by the vanishingly low concentrations of some peptides; (2) genetic engineering (Chapter 9); or (3) direct chemical synthesis. Powerful techniques now make direct chemical synthesis an attractive option in many cases. In addition to commercial applications, the synthesis of specific peptide portions of larger proteins is an increasingly important tool for the study of protein structure and function.

The complexity of proteins makes the traditional synthetic approaches of organic chemistry impractical for peptides with more than four or five amino acid residues. One problem is the difficulty of purifying the product after each step.

The major breakthrough in this technology was provided by R. Bruce Merrifield in 1962. His innovation involved synthesizing a peptide while keeping it attached at one end to a solid support. The support is an insoluble polymer (resin) contained within a column, similar to that used for chromatographic procedures. The peptide is built up on this support one amino acid at a time using a standard set of reactions in a repeating cycle (Fig. 3-29). At each successive step in the cycle, protective chemical groups block unwanted reactions.

The technology for chemical peptide synthesis is now automated. As in the sequencing reactions already considered, the most important limitation of the process is the efficiency of each chemical cycle, as can be seen by calculating the overall yields of peptides of various lengths when the yield for addition of each new amino acid is 96.0% versus 99.8% (Table 3-8). Incomplete reaction at one stage can lead to formation of an impurity (in the form of a shorter peptide) in the next. The chemistry has been optimized to permit the synthesis of proteins of 100 amino acid residues in a few days in reasonable yield. A very similar approach is used to synthesize nucleic acids (see Fig. 8-38). It is worth noting that this technology, impressive as it is, still pales when compared with biological processes. The same

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