Large scale mass spectrometry-based identifications of enzyme-mediated protein methylation are subject to high false discovery rates

Gene Hart-Smith*, Daniel Yagoub, Aidan P. Tay, Russell Pickford, Marc R. Wilkins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)


All large scale LC-MS/MS post-translational methylation site discovery experiments require methylpeptide spectrum matches (methyl-PSMs) to be identified at acceptably low false discovery rates (FDRs). To meet estimated methyl-PSM FDRs, methyl-PSM filtering criteria are often determined using the target-decoy approach. The efficacy of this methyl-PSM filtering approach has, however, yet to be thoroughly evaluated. Here, we conduct a systematic analysis of methyl-PSM FDRs across a range of sample preparation workflows (each differing in their exposure to the alcohols methanol and isopropyl alcohol) and mass spectrometric instrument platforms (each employing a different mode of MS/MS dissociation). Through 13CD3-methionine labeling (heavy-methyl SILAC) of Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells and in-depth manual data inspection, accurate lists of true positive methyl-PSMs were determined, allowing methyl-PSM FDRs to be compared with target-decoy approach-derived methyl-PSM FDR estimates. These results show that global FDR estimates produce extremely unreliable methyl-PSM filtering criteria; we demonstrate that this is an unavoidable consequence of the high number of amino acid combinations capable of producing peptide sequences that are isobaric to methylated peptides of a different sequence. Separate methyl-PSM FDR estimates were also found to be unreliable due to prevalent sources of false positive methyl-PSMs that produce high peptide identity score distributions. Incorrect methylation site localizations, peptides containing cysteinyl-S-β-propionamide, and methylated glutamic or aspartic acid residues can partially, but not wholly, account for these false positive methyl-PSMs. Together, these results indicate that the target-decoy approach is an unreliable means of estimating methyl-PSM FDRs and methyl-PSM filtering criteria. We suggest that orthogonal methylpeptide validation (e.g. heavy-methyl SILAC or its offshoots) should be considered a prerequisite for obtaining high confidence methyl-PSMs in large scale LC-MS/MS methylation site discovery experiments and make recommendations on how to reduce methyl-PSM FDRs in samples not amenable to heavy isotope labeling. Data are available via ProteomeXchange with the data identifier PXD002857.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)989-1006
Number of pages18
JournalMolecular and Cellular Proteomics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016
Externally publishedYes


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