Single-cell proteomics represents a field of extremely sensitive proteomic analysis, owing to the minute amount of yet complex proteins in a single cell. Without amplification potential as of nucleic acids, single-cell mass spectrometry (MS) analysis demands special instrumentation running with optimized parameters to maximize the sensitivity and throughput for comprehensive proteomic discovery. To facilitate such analysis, we here investigated two factors critical to peptide sequencing and protein detection in shotgun proteomics, i.e. precursor ion isolation window (IW) and maximum precursor ion injection time (ITmax), on an ultrahigh-field quadrupole Orbitrap (Q-Exactive HF). Counterintuitive to the frequently used proteomic parameters for bulk samples (>100 ng), our experimental data and subsequent modeling suggested a universally optimal IW of 4.0 Th for sample quantity ranging from 100 ng to 1 ng, and a sample-quantity dependent ITmax of more than 250 ms for 1-ng samples. Compared with the benchmark condition of IW = 2.0 Th and ITmax = 50 ms, our optimization generated up to 300% increase to the detected protein groups for 1-ng samples. The additionally identified proteins allowed deeper penetration of proteome for better revealing crucial cellular functions such as signaling and cell adhesion. We hope this effort can prompt single-cell and trace proteomic analysis and enable a rational selection of MS parameters.
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