Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 183-198

First online:

Assigning product ions from complex MS/MS spectra: The importance of mass uncertainty and resolving power

  • Lekha SlenoAffiliated withInstitute for Marine Biosciences, National Research Council
  • , Dietrich A. VolmerAffiliated withInstitute for Marine Biosciences, National Research Council Email author 
  • , Alan G. MarshallAffiliated withNational High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Florida State University


This study offers a unique insight into the mass accuracy and resolving power requirements in MS/MS analyses of complex product ion spectra. In the examples presented here, accurate mass assignments were often difficult because of multiple isobaric interferences and centroid mass shifts. The question then arose whether the resolving power of a medium-resolution quadrupole time-of flight (QqTOF) is sufficient or high-resolution Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance (FT-ICR) is required for unambiguous assignments of elemental compositions. For the comparison, two paralytic shellfish poisons (PSP), saxitoxin (STX) and neosaxitoxin (NEO), with molecular weights of 299 and 315 g·mol−1, respectively, were chosen because of the high peak density in their MS/MS spectra. The assessment of QqTOF collision-induced dissociation spectra and FT-ICR infrared multiphoton dissociation spectra revealed that several intrinsic dissociation pathways leading to isobaric fragment ions could not be resolved with the QqTOF instrument and required FT-ICR to distinguish very close mass differences. The second major source of interferences was M+1 species originating from coactivated 13C12CCc−1 ion contributions of the protonated molecules of the PSPs. The problem in QqTOF MS results from internal mass calibration when the MH+ ions of analyte and mass calibrant are activated at the same time in the collision or trapping cell. Although FT-ICR MS readily resolved these interfering species, the QqTOF did not provide resolving power >20,000 (full width at half maximum) required to separate most isobaric species. We were able to develop a semi-internal QqTOF calibration technique that activated only the isolated 12C isotope species of the protonated molecules, thus reducing the M+1 interferences significantly. In terms of overall automated elemental formulas assignment, FT-ICR MS achieved the first formula hit for 100% of the product ions, whereas the QqTOF MS hit rate was only 56 and 65% for STX and NEO product ions, respectively. External mass calibration from commercial FT-ICR and QqTOF instruments gave similar results.