Identification of formaldehyde-induced modifications in proteins: Reactions with insulin

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Bioconjugate Chemistry, Volume 17, Number 3, pp. 815-822 (2006)



DOI Name (links to online publication)



mass-spectrometry; cross-linking; detoxification brought; structural-analysis; model peptides; acetaldehyde; stabilization; toxins; derivatives; mechanism


Formaldehyde is frequently used to inactivate, stabilize, or immobilize proteins. The treatment results in a large variety of chemical modifications in proteins, such as the formation of methylol groups, Schiff bases, and methylene bridges. The purpose of the present study was to identify the stable formaldehyde-induced modifications in a small protein. Therefore, insulin was treated with excess formaldehyde (CH2O) or deuterated formaldehyde (CD2O). In a separate experiment, insulin was modified by formaldehyde (CH2O vs CD2O) and glycine. The mixture of CH2O-treated and CD2O-treated insulin was digested by the proteinase Glu-C. The peptide fragments obtained were analyzed by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS). Seven intramolecular cross-links were identified in formaldehyde-treated insulin. Furthermore, eight out of the sixteen potentially reactive sites of the insulin molecule were modified by incubation with formaldehyde and glycine. Both the location and the chemical nature of the modifications could be assigned based on the mass increase of potential adducts as elucidated in our previous study (B. Metz et al. (2004) J. Biol. Chem. 279, 6235-6243). To confirm the assigned structures, LC-MS measurements with collision-induced dissociation (LC-MS/MS) were performed on insulin fragments. The results of the LC-MS/MS analyses agreed excellently with the assignments. The study showed that arginine, tyrosine, and lysine residues were very reactive. However, eight theoretically reactive residues did not show detectable modifications, probably because of their low intrinsic reactivity, inaccessibility, or both. The asparagine, glutamine, and histidine residues were not converted in insulin. The N-termini of insulin were partly converted to the expected imidazolidinone adducts, indicating that the protein conformation affects the accessibility and reactivity of these residues. In conclusion, this study shows that, based on our current insights in the chemistry of the reactions between proteins and formaldehyde, we are able to elucidate the location and nature of formaldehyde-induced modifications in a small protein. The approach followed in this study may be generally applicable to larger formaldehyde-treated proteins, such as toxoids used in vaccines.