Mapping highly complicated disulfide linkages and free thiols via liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS2) is challenging because of the difficulties in optimizing sample preparation to acquire critical MS data and detecting mispairings. Herein, we report a highly efficient and comprehensive workflow using an on-line UV-induced precolumn reduction tandem mass spectrometry (UV-LC-MS2) coupled with two-stage data analysis and spiked control. UV-LC-MS2 features a gradient run of acetonitrile containing a tunable percentage of photoinitiators (acetone/alcohol) that drives the sample to the MS through a UV-flow cell and reverse phase column to separate UV-induced products for subsequent fragmentation via low energy collision-induced dissociation. This allowed the alkylated thiol-containing and UV-reduced cysteine-containing peptides to be identified by a nontargeted database search. Expected or unexpected disulfide/thiol mapping was then carried out based on the search results, and data were derived from partially reduced species by photochemical reaction. Complete assignments of native and scrambled disulfide linkages of insulin, α-lactalbumin, and bovine serum albumin (BSA) as well as the free C34-BSA were demonstrated using none or single enzyme digestion. This workflow was applied to characterize unknown disulfide/thiol patterns of the recombinant cyclophilin 1 monomer (rTvCyP1 mono) from the human pathogen Trichomonas vaginalis. α-Lactalbumin was judiciously chosen as a spiked control to minimize mispairings due to sample preparation. rTvCyP1 was determined to contain a high percentage of thiol (>80%). The rest of rTvCyP1 mono were identified to contain two disulfide/thiol patterns, of which C41- C169 linkage was confirmed to exist as C53-C181 in rTvCyP2, a homologue of rTvCyP1. This platform identifies heterogeneous protein disulfide/thiol patterns in a de-novo fashion with artifact control, opening up an opportunity to characterize crude proteins for many applications.
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