Mass spectrometry-based characterization of endogenous peptides and metabolites in small volume samples

Ta Hsuan Ong, Emily G. Tillmaand, Monika Makurath, Stanislav S. Rubakhin, Jonathan V. Sweedler

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Technologies to assay single cells and their extracellular microenvironments are valuable in elucidating biological function, but there are challenges. Sample volumes are low, the physicochemical parameters of the analytes vary widely, and the cellular environment is chemically complex. In addition, the inherent difficulty of isolating individual cells and handling small volume samples complicates many experimental protocols. Here we highlight a number of mass spectrometry (MS)-based measurement approaches for characterizing the chemical content of small volume analytes, with a focus on methods used to detect intracellular and extracellular metabolites and peptides from samples as small as individual cells. MS has become one of the most effective means for analyzing small biological samples due to its high sensitivity, low analyte consumption, compatibility with a wide array of sampling approaches, and ability to detect a large number of analytes with different properties without preselection. Having access to a flexible portfolio of MS-based methods allows quantitative, qualitative, untargeted, targeted, multiplexed, and spatially resolved investigations of single cells and their similarly scaled extracellular environments. Combining MS with on-line and off-line sample conditioning tools, such as microfluidic and capillary electrophoresis systems, significantly increases the analytical coverage of the sample's metabolome and peptidome, and improves individual analyte characterization/identification. Small volume assays help to reveal the causes and manifestations of biological and pathological variability, as well as the functional heterogeneity of individual cells within their microenvironments and within cellular populations. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Neuroproteomics: Applications in Neuroscience and Neurology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)732-740
Number of pages9
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Proteins and Proteomics
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Bioanalytical microanalysis
  • Mass spectrometry
  • Microenvironments
  • Single cell

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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