Direct analysis of sterols by derivatization matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry and tandem mass spectrometry




Free sterols are neutral molecules that are difficult to analyze by MALDI or ESI and their molecular ions easily fragment. In order to increase their ionization efficiency and selectivity, sterols were derivatized by different reagents.


Selected sterols were converted into their corresponding picolinyl esters, N-methylpyridyl ethers and sulphated esters. The derivatives were optimized for MALDI-TOFMS analysis through proper selection of the matrix. MALDI-TOF/TOF experiments were carried out to study the fragmentation pathways of the derivatives and their use in structural elucidation. Lipid extracts from mussels were used as test samples for MALDI analysis of sterols in biological samples also analyzed by GC/MS for comparison.


Sterol picolinyl esters were identified as sodiated adducts [M+Na]+ and the signal significantly enhanced after addition of sodium acetate (20 mM). Sterol N-methylpyridyl ethers were easily detected as [M]+ while sulphated sterols were best detected as [M–H]. The ester bonds of picolinyl and sulphated esters easily cleaved in MS/MS resulting in diagnostic derivative fragments at m/z 146.03 and 96.89, respectively. Cleavage of the ether bond of N-methylpyridyl ethers gave a diagnostic fragment ion at m/z 110.04. Sterol profiles in mussels obtained by MALDI-TOFMS were in close agreement with those obtained by GC/MS. Two sterols (cholesterol and β-sitosterol) were selected for quantification as their sulphated and picolinyl esters. Calibration curves gave excellent correlation coefficients.


Suitable matrices for picolinyl esters are DHB and THAP, for N-methylpyridyl ethers THAP, and for sulphated esters p-nitroaniline and dithranol. Using cholesterol, the limits of detection (LODs) for sulphated esters were 0.2 µg/mL and for picolinyl esters, 1.5 µg/mL. N-Methylpyridyl ethers were found unsuitable for sterol quantitation. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.