Differential analysis of whole cell proteomes by mass spectrometry has largely been applied using various forms of stable isotope labeling. While metabolic stable isotope labeling has been the method of choice, it is often not possible to apply such an approach. Four different label free ways of calculating expression ratios in a classic "two-state" experiment are compared: signal intensity at the peptide level, signal intensity at the protein level, spectral counting at the peptide level, and spectral counting at the protein level. The quantitative data were mined from a dataset of 1245 qualitatively identified proteins, about 56% of the protein encoding open reading frames from Porphyromonas gingivalis, a Gram-negative intracellular pathogen being studied under extracellular and intracellular conditions. Two different control populations were compared against P. gingivalis internalized within a model human target cell line. The q-value statistic, a measure of false discovery rate previously applied to transcription microarrays, was applied to proteomics data. For spectral counting, the most logically consistent estimate of random error came from applying the locally weighted scatter plot smoothing procedure (LOWESS) to the most extreme ratios generated from a control technical replicate, thus setting upper and lower bounds for the region of experimentally observed random error.

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