Current molecular methods to characterize microalgae are time-intensive and expensive. Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry (MALDITOF MS) may represent a rapid and economical alternative approach. The objectives of this study were to determine whether MALDI-TOF MS can be used to: 1) differentiate microalgae at the species and strain levels and 2) characterize simple microalgal mixtures. A common protein extraction sample preparation method was used to facilitate rapid mass spectrometry-based analysis of 31 microalgae. Each yielded spectra containing between 6 and 56 peaks in the m/z 2,000 to 20,000 range. The taxonomic resolution of this approach appeared higher than that of 18S rDNA sequence analysis. For example, two strains of Scenedesmus acutus differed only by two 18S rDNA nucleotides, but yielded distinct MALDI-TOF mass spectra. Mixtures of two and three microalgae yielded relatively complex spectra that contained peaks associated with members of each mixture. Interestingly, though, mixture-specific peaks were observed at m/z 11,048 and 11,230. Our results suggest that MALDI-TOF MS affords rapid characterization of individual microalgae and simple microalgal mixtures.
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