Ammonium Ion Binding to DNA G-Quadruplexes: Do Electrospray Mass Spectra Faithfully Reflect the Solution-Phase Species?

Abstract

G-quadruplex nucleic acids can bind ammonium ions in solution, and these complexes can be detected by electrospray mass spectrometry (ESI-MS). However, because ammonium ions are volatile, the extent to which ESI-MS quantitatively could provide an accurate reflection of such solution-phase equilibria is unclear. Here we studied five G-quadruplexes having known solution-phase structure and ammonium ion binding constants: the bimolecular G-quadruplexes (dG4T4G4)2, (dG4T3G4)2, and (dG3T4G4)2, and the intramolecular G-quadruplexes dG4(T4G4)3 and dG2T2G2TGTG2T2G2 (thrombin binding aptamer). We found that not all mass spectrometers are equally suited to reflect the solution phase species. Ion activation can occur in the electrospray source, or in a high-pressure traveling wave ion mobility cell. When the softest instrumental conditions are used, ammonium ions bound between G-quartets, but also additional ammonium ions bound at specific sites outside the external G-quartets, can be observed. However, even specifically bound ammonium ions are in some instances too labile to be fully retained in the gas phase structures, and although the ammonium ion distribution observed by ESI-MS shows biases at specific stoichiometries, the relative abundances in solution are not always faithfully reflected. Ion mobility spectrometry results show that all inter-quartet ammonium ions are necessary to preserve the G-quadruplex fold in the gas phase. Ion mobility experiments, therefore, help assign the number of inner ammonium ions in the solution phase structure.