Journal of Chromatography A

Inversion of peak elution order prevents uniform time alignment of complex liquid-chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry datasets

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Retention time alignment is one of the most challenging steps in processing LC-MS datasets of complex proteomics samples acquired within a differential profiling study. A large number of time alignment methods have been developed for accurate pre-processing of such datasets. These methods generally assume that common compounds elute in the same order but they do not test whether this assumption holds. If this assumption is not valid, alignments based on a monotonic retention time function will lose accuracy for peaks that depart from the expected order of the retention time correspondence function.To address this issue, we propose a quality control method that assesses if a pair of complex LC-MS datasets can be aligned with the same alignment performance based on statistical tests before correcting retention time shifts. The algorithm first confirms the presence of an adequate number of common peaks (>~100 accurately matched peak pairs), then determines if the probability for a conserved elution order of those common peaks is sufficiently high (>0.01) and finally performs retention time alignment of two LC-MS chromatograms. This procedure was applied to LC-MS and LC-MS/MS datasets from two different inter-laboratory proteomics studies showing that a large number of common peaks in chromatograms acquired by different laboratories change elution order with considerable retention time differences.