On studying protein phosphorylation patterns using bottom-up LC-MS/MS: the case of human alpha-casein

Frank Kjeldsen, Mikhail M Savitski, Michael L Nielsen, Lei Shi, Roman A Zubarev

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Most proteomics studies involving mapping post-translational modifications, such as the phosphorylation of serine and threonine, are performed today using the 'bottom-up' approach. This approach involves enzymatic cleavage of proteins, most often by trypsin, with subsequent nano-LC-MS/MS. The occupancy rates of phosphosites in proteins may differ by orders of magnitude, and thus the occupancy rate must be reported for each occupied phosphosite. To highlight potential pitfalls in quantifying the occupancy rates, alpha(s1)-casein from human milk was selected as a model molecule representing moderately phosphorylated proteins. For this purpose, human milk from one Caucasian woman in the eighth month of lactation was used. The phosphorylation level of caseins is believed to have major implications for the formation of micelles that are involved in delivering valuable calcium phosphate and other minerals to the new-born. Human alpha(s1)-casein has been reported to be much less phosphorylated than ruminant caseins, which may indicate a different function of caseins in humans. Revealing the phosphorylation pattern in human casein can thus shed light on its function. The current study found that the sequence region between the residues Ser70 and Ser76 in human alpha(s1)-casein is in fact phosphorylated, contrary to previous knowledge. The site of the most abundant phosphorylation is Ser75, in agreement with the known action of the mammary gland casein kinase. There is evidence for the second phosphorylation in that region, possibly at Ser73. Earlier reported positions of phosphorylations at Ser18 and Ser26 are also confirmed, but not the dominance of Ser18 phosphorylation. The occupancy rates at Ser18, Ser26 and Ser75 are estimated to be (7 +/- 2), (20 +/- 6) and (27 +/- 9)%, respectively. Owing to differences in the ionization efficiency between phosphorylated and unphosphorylated peptides a 30% error margin is added to the occupancy rates. The highlighted pitfalls of the bottom-up strategy include the sensitivity of enzymes to proximal acidic and phosphorylated residues and the presence of multiple isoforms, including unexpected ones, of the tryptic peptides. The utility of the earlier introduced PhosTS_hunter and ModifiComb approaches for evading the latter pitfall is demonstrated.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number8
Pages (from-to)768-776
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 1. Aug 2007


  • Caseins
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Milk, Human
  • Phosphorylation
  • Proteomics
  • Serine
  • Spectrum Analysis


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