The inverse labeling/mass spectrometry strategy has been applied to protein metabolic 15N labeling for gel-free proteomics to achieve the rapid identification of protein markers/targets. Inverse labeling involves culturing both the perturbed (by disease or by a drug treatment) and control samples each in two separate pools of normal and 15N-enriched culture media such that four pools are produced as opposed to two in a conventional labeling approach. The inverse labeling is then achieved by combining the normal 14N-control with the 15N-perturbed sample, and the 15N-control with the 14N-perturbed sample. Both mixtures are then proteolyzed and analyzed by mass spectrometry (coupled with on-line or off-line separation). Inverse labeling overcomes difficulties associated with protein metabolic labeling with regard to isotopic peak correlation and data interpretation in the single-experiment approach (due to the non-predictable/variable mass difference). When two data sets from inverse labeling are compared, proteins of differential expression are readily recognized by a characteristic inverse labeling pattern or apparent qualitative mass shifts between the two inverse labeling analyses. MS/MS fragmentation data provide further confirmation and are subsequently used to search protein databases for protein identification. The methodology has been applied successfully to two model systems in this study. Utilizing the inverse labeling strategy, one can use any mass spectrometer of standard unit resolution, and acquire only the minimum, essential data to achieve the rapid and unambiguous identification of differentially expressed protein markers/targets. The strategy permits quick focus on the signals of differentially expressed proteins. It eliminates the detection ambiguities caused by the dynamic range of detection. Finally, inverse labeling enables the detection of covalent changes of proteins responding to a perturbation that one might fail to distinguish with a conventional labeling experiment. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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