Native electrospray mass spectrometry is a powerful method for determining the native stoichiometry of many polydisperse multi-subunit biological complexes, including multi-subunit protein complexes and lipid-bound transmembrane proteins. However, when polydispersity results from incorporation of multiple copies of two or more different subunits, it can be difficult to analyze subunit stoichiometry using conventional mass spectrometry analysis methods, especially when m/z distributions for different charge states overlap in the mass spectrum. It was recently demonstrated by Marty and co-workers (K. K. Hoi, et al., Anal. Chem., 2016, 88, 6199-6204) that Fourier Transform (FT)-based methods can determine the bulk average lipid composition of protein-lipid Nanodiscs assembled with two different lipids, but a detailed statistical description of the composition of more general polydisperse two-subunit populations is still difficult to achieve. This results from the vast number of ways in which the two types of subunit can be distributed within the analyte ensemble. Here, we present a theoretical description of three common classes of heterogeneity for mixed-subunit analytes and demonstrate how to differentiate and analyze them using mass spectrometry and FT methods. First, we first describe FT-based analysis of mass spectra corresponding to simple superpositions, convolutions, and multinomial distributions for two or more different subunit types using model data sets. We then apply these principles with real samples, including mixtures of single-lipid Nanodiscs in the same solution (superposition), mixed-lipid Nanodiscs and copolymers (convolutions), and isotope distribution for ubiquitin (multinomial distribution). This classification scheme and the FT method used to study these analyte classes should be broadly useful in mass spectrometry as well as other techniques where overlapping, periodic signals arising from analyte mixtures are common.
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