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Nat Protoc. 2019 Dec;14(12):3445-3470. doi: 10.1038/s41596-019-0237-4. Epub 2019 Nov 13.

High spatial resolution imaging of biological tissues using nanospray desorption electrospray ionization mass spectrometry.

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Department of Chemistry, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA.
Biological Sciences Division, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA, USA.
Division of Reproductive Sciences, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and Department of Pediatrics, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Cincinnati, OH, USA.
Department of Chemistry, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA.


Mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) enables label-free spatial mapping of hundreds of biomolecules in tissue sections. This capability provides valuable information on tissue heterogeneity that is difficult to obtain using population-averaged assays. Despite substantial developments in both instrumentation and methodology, MSI of tissue samples at single-cell resolution remains challenging. Herein, we describe a protocol for robust imaging of tissue sections with a high (better than 10-μm) spatial resolution using nanospray desorption electrospray ionization (nano-DESI) mass spectrometry, an ambient ionization technique that does not require sample pretreatment before analysis. In this protocol, mouse uterine tissue is used as a model system to illustrate both the workflow and data obtained in these experiments. We provide a detailed description of the nano-DESI MSI platform, fabrication of the nano-DESI and shear force probes, shear force microscopy experiments, spectral acquisition, and data processing. A properly trained researcher (e.g., technician, graduate student, or postdoc) can complete all the steps from probe fabrication to data acquisition and processing within a single day. We also describe a new strategy for acquiring both positive- and negative-mode imaging data in the same experiment. This is achieved by alternating between positive and negative data acquisition modes during consecutive line scans. Using our imaging approach, hundreds of high-quality ion images were obtained from a single uterine section. This protocol enables sensitive and quantitative imaging of lipids and metabolites in heterogeneous tissue sections with high spatial resolution, which is critical to understanding biochemical processes occurring in biological tissues.

[Available on 2020-12-01]

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