Research Article

Journal of The American Society for Mass Spectrometry

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 718-730

First online:

Sequence Elucidation of an Unknown Cyclic Peptide of High Doping Potential by ETD and CID Tandem Mass Spectrometry

  • Fuyu GuanAffiliated withSchool of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
  • , Cornelius E. UbohAffiliated withSchool of Veterinary Medicine, University of PennsylvaniaPA Equine Toxicology and Research Center, West Chester University Email author 
  • , Lawrence R. SomaAffiliated withSchool of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
  • , Jeffrey RudyAffiliated withPA Equine Toxicology and Research Center, West Chester University


Identification of an unknown substance without any information remains a daunting challenge despite advances in chemistry and mass spectrometry. However, an unknown cyclic peptide in a sample with very limited volume seized at a Pennsylvania racetrack has been successfully identified. The unknown sample was determined by accurate mass measurements to contain a small unknown peptide as the major component. Collision-induced dissociation (CID) of the unknown peptide revealed the presence of Lys (not Gln, by accurate mass), Phe, and Arg residues, and absence of any y-type product ion. The latter, together with the tryptic digestion results of the unusual deamidation and absence of any tryptic cleavage, suggests a cyclic structure for the peptide. Electron-transfer dissociation (ETD) of the unknown peptide indicated the presence of Gln (not Lys, by the unusual deamidation), Phe, and Arg residues and their connectivity. After all the results were pieced together, a cyclic tetrapeptide, cyclo[Arg-Lys-N(C6H9)Gln-Phe], is proposed for the unknown peptide. Observations of different amino acid residues from CID and ETD experiments for the peptide were interpreted by a fragmentation pathway proposed, as was preferential CID loss of a Lys residue from the peptide. ETD was used for the first time in sequencing of a cyclic peptide; product ions resulting from ETD of the peptide identified were categorized into two types and named pseudo-b and pseudo-z ions that are important for sequencing of cyclic peptides. The ETD product ions were interpreted by fragmentation pathways proposed. Additionally, multi-stage CID mass spectrometry cannot provide complete sequence information for cyclic peptides containing adjacent Arg and Lys residues. The identified cyclic peptide has not been documented in the literature, its pharmacological effects are unknown, but it might be a “designer” drug with athletic performance-enhancing effects.

Key words

Unknown cyclic peptide Unknown sample Doping analysis Equine drug testing Electron transfer dissociation Collision-induced dissociatin Accurate mass Multiple stage CID