Volume 11 Supplement 6
PEPPI: a peptidomic database of human protein isoforms for proteomics experiments
© Chen et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2010
Published: 07 October 2010
Protein isoform generation, which may derive from alternative splicing, genetic polymorphism, and posttranslational modification, is an essential source of achieving molecular diversity by eukaryotic cells. Previous studies have shown that protein isoforms play critical roles in disease diagnosis, risk assessment, sub-typing, prognosis, and treatment outcome predictions. Understanding the types, presence, and abundance of different protein isoforms in different cellular and physiological conditions is a major task in functional proteomics, and may pave ways to molecular biomarker discovery of human diseases. In tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) based proteomics analysis, peptide peaks with exact matches to protein sequence records in the proteomics database may be identified with mass spectrometry (MS) search software. However, due to limited annotation and poor coverage of protein isoforms in proteomics databases, high throughput protein isoform identifications, particularly those arising from alternative splicing and genetic polymorphism, have not been possible.
Therefore, we present the PEPtidomics Protein Isoform Database (PEPPI, http://bio.informatics.iupui.edu/peppi), a comprehensive database of computationally-synthesized human peptides that can identify protein isoforms derived from either alternatively spliced mRNA transcripts or SNP variations. We collected genome, pre-mRNA alternative splicing and SNP information from Ensembl. We synthesized in silico isoform transcripts that cover all exons and theoretically possible junctions of exons and introns, as well as all their variations derived from known SNPs. With three case studies, we further demonstrated that the database can help researchers discover and characterize new protein isoform biomarkers from experimental proteomics data.
We developed a new tool for the proteomics community to characterize protein isoforms from MS-based proteomics experiments. By cataloguing each peptide configurations in the PEPPI database, users can study genetic variations and alternative splicing events at the proteome level. They can also batch-download peptide sequences in FASTA format to search for MS/MS spectra derived from human samples. The database can help generate novel hypotheses on molecular risk factors and molecular mechanisms of complex diseases, leading to identification of potentially highly specific protein isoform biomarkers.
Human cells benefit from elaborate mechanisms to modify proteins, creating many protein variants (isoforms), both to increase the diversity of functions and to regulate the activities of proteins. A protein isoform is any of several different forms of the same protein. Different forms of a protein may be produced from related genes such as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or may arise from the same gene by alternative splicing or post-translational modifications (PTM). Alternative splicing and SNPs expands the number of messenger RNAs to about 88,000 mRNA variants during transcription of these genes. About 8% of these protein isoforms are generated from mRNA transcripts affected by alternative splicing or SNPs, whereas over 90% of protein isoforms are created through post-translational modifications (PTMs) after the mRNA is translated into a protein . Recent studies have shown that the identification, analysis and characterization of these individual protein isoforms (Alternative Splicing, SNPs and PTMs) could improve understanding of diseases improve disease diagnosis or interventions [2–11].
Recent advances in clinical proteomics technology, particularly liquid chromatography-coupled tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), have enabled biomedical researchers to characterize thousands of proteins in parallel in biological samples. Identifying disease-related protein isoforms using tandem mass spectrometry, therefore, can provide hope for improving both the sensitivity and the specificity of candidate disease biomarkers, because proteomics identification, instead of quantification, of the same set of protein isoforms is often sufficient to distinguish between disease samples and controls.
However, identifying protein isoforms using current MS proteomics search databases and software tools has been challenging, primarily because of the smaller size of known or common alternatively spliced protein isoforms relative to several orders of magnitude larger size of MS search databases, which makes exhaustive novel peptide identification computationally inefficient for routine proteomics studies. Up to 80% of all MS spectra peaks in a typical proteomics experiment may remain uncharacterized when searched against a standard MS database with little protein isoform information. Such standard MS search databases include: the IPI database , the NCBI-nr database, and the UniProt knowledge base . These databases integrate more than a dozen public protein and DNA sequence databases into a non-redundant list of both known and predicted protein sequences, with only publicly known splice variant transcripts represented. MS search software such as SEQUEST , Mascot , X!Tandem , and OMSSA . may further allow customized identification of limited types of PTM-derived peptides and proteins. However, these protein sequence databases do not contain information about alternatively spliced transcripts or theoretically possible “mis-spliced” protein isoforms; nor do they contain peptide variants arising from SNPs that result in amino acid changes. Therefore, they are ill-suited for comprehensive protein isoform identification purposes.
Although there are several publicly available alternative splicing mRNA transcript databases and SNP databases including ASTD , EID [20, 21], ASPicDB , ECgene , MutDB [24, 25], and dbSNP , none of these databases can be readily used for identification of novel peptides derived from uncharacterized protein isoforms. Since predictions of gene splicing patterns in all the methods are based on alignments of transcript data (mostly expressed sequence tags, ESTs) to a genomic sequence, some limitations exist in all these methods mostly due to the sequence errors frequently occurring in ESTs and to the repetitive structure of the genome sequence. Moreover, all the databases mentioned contain a rather small set of alternatively spliced peptides because they are either manually curated or literature-based data sets, as well as poor annotation of splice events, which are inadequate for the identification of alternatively spliced protein isoforms. To explore the huge solution space of all possible alternatively spliced combination of exons and potentially coding introns, one must generate virtual peptides exhaustively so that uncharacterized MS spectra can be searched against them. In addition, the database of virtual peptides should be expanded to accommodate the amino acid alterations introduced by each SNP.
In this paper, we describe the development of a Pep tideomics Database of P rotein I soforms (PEPPI), which consists of systematically generated virtual peptides that cover alternative splicing events and known SNP variations, for identifying protein isoforms in large-scale proteomics results. In the PEPPI database, we introduce a peptidomics approach to integrating genome, transcriptome, proteome and SNP information for human proteomics studies. The database contains a comprehensive set of peptides derived from all known annotated human genes in the Genome Reference Consortium Human genome build 37 by generating alternative splicing events and incorporating non-synonymous SNPs. It is the first comprehensive database that can be used to characterize novel protein isoforms derived from alternative splicing and SNP variations in MS spectra. The database has a web user interface that allows its users to query a gene/protein and compare all its above-mentioned types of protein isoforms and associated virtual peptides online.
Database Content Statistics
Regions / Peptides without SNP
Peptides with SNP
All Peptides of the Region Type
A peptide-protein mapping is also captured for comparing the MS search results derived with the PEPPI and conventional protein sequence databases. In total 613,591 peptides are mapped to 66,384 IPI  proteins (Table 1).
General online features
We show three case studies of increasing complexity and biological significance to demonstrate that the database can help researchers discover and characterize new protein isoform biomarkers from experimental proteomics data.
Case study 1: browsing PEPPI peptides and relating information based on a query gene
For users who would like to review all the peptide regions and peptides within a gene of interest, we provide the standard gene search procedure. In this case study we show how to browse the PEPPI peptide regions, PEPPI peptides and related information within gene PRH1. Users will start from the Search Home (Figure 1A), go through the Gene View (Figure 1B), Region View (Figure 1C), and finally navigate to the Peptide View (Figure 1D).
Case study 2: identifying genomic origins and alternative splicing events from peptides detected in MS experiments
For users, especially MS proteomics scientists, who want to start the query from a peptide sequence or a protein, we provided a peptide sequence search function (Figure 1F) and the Protein View (Figure 1E). In this case study we demonstrate that the PEPPI database can help identify the genomic origins of peptides detected from MS data, and can help characterize the alternative splicing events related to these peptides.
As shown in Figure 5B and 5C, peptide 1 is mapped to “PEP000841715”, which is an E_E_KB peptide, and peptide 2 is mapped to “PEP000841692” which is an EXON_KB peptide. This indicates peptide 1 is coded by an exon-exon junction, and peptide 2 is coded by a single exon.
To study the related alternative splicing events, we then compared the number of proteins which can be mapped to these peptides. By clicking on the peptide ID, we can get access to the proteins mapped to each peptide. We found 4 proteins mapped to peptide 1, and 5 proteins mapped to peptide 2. Interestingly, only one protein (IPI00745806) was differentially mapped. By looking up the protein information in IPI, we found that the proteins involved are five different alternatively spliced isoforms of MP2K7_HUMAN, and IPI00745806 is the third isoform. Therefore, it is likely that only a specific alternative splicing event that takes place is annotated and can be mapped onto the protein sequence IPI00745806.
To verify our suspicion on the existence of the alternative splicing event, we compared the protein-peptide mapping of the wild-type and the third isoform of MP2K7_HUMAN. In the wild-type MP2K7_HUMAN (Figure 5D), “PEP000841715” contains the splice junction of two exons (PEP000841690 and PEP000841692), and peptide 1 just crosses the splice site. Nevertheless, in the MP2K7_HUMAN isoform 3 (Figure 5E), we found a unique cassette exon (PEP000841691) spliced between the two exons, which hampered the coding of sub-sequence mappable to peptide 1. Meanwhile, peptide 2 is only mapped to a single exon (PEP000841692), which exists in all five proteins and unaffected by any splice events. Thus we have confirmed the suspicion that a cassette exon event caused the protein mapping difference between two MS peptides, and have shown the PEPPI database’s ability to help infer alternative splicing events from peptides detected from MS experiments.
Case study 3: identifying new peptide isoforms for human
Human fetal liver can evolve into a major site of embryonic hematopoiesis; therefore, protein profiling may help researchers understand how the interaction between hepatic and hematopoietic systems and the migration of the hematopoietic system during mammalian development take place. We collected four human fetal liver cytoplasm proteome data sets from the human fetal liver project (http://hlpic.hupo.org.cn/dblep). SDS-PAGE with different cross-linking percentages 15%, 10%, and 7.5% was used for protein separation to obtain a full representation of proteins ranging from 5 kDa to more than 300 kDa. After these gels were stained with Colloidal Coomassie Blue R250 and the gel lanes were manually excised from loading position to the bottom of the gel, the extracted peptide mixtures were loaded onto nanoscale LC-ESI-Q-TOF MS or micro-LC-ion trap MS systems for protein identification .
In order to show that the PEPPI database can be used to identify additional novel peptide isoforms than the traditional protein database, we downloaded the protein database IPI and created three datasets using the PEPPI database: 1) annotated exonic peptides and exon-exon combinations without SNP (PEPPI_KB), 2) all PEPPI peptides without SNP (PEPPI_without_SNP), and 3) all PEPPI peptides including peptides with SNP (PEPPI_with_SNP). PEPPI_KB consists of peptides of both the EXON_KB and E_E_KB region types without additional SNP permutations; PEPPI_without_SNP consists of peptides of the EXON_KB, E_E_KB, E_I_TH, I_E_TH, and E_E_TH region types without additional SNP permutations; PEPPI_with_SNP consists of peptides of all types, with or without SNPs, in the PEPPI database. We also created four corresponding inverse sequence datasets to evaluate the false discovery rate with a target-decoy search strategy . The four peak list files of human fetal liver from LC-ESI-Q-TOF MS or micro-LC-ion trap MS raw files were searched by OMSSA  against the four databases and their four inverse databases in order to compare the results among them.
OMSSA reports hits ranked by E-value. An E-value for a hit is a score that is the expected number of random hits from a search library to a given spectrum, such that the random hits have an equal or better score than the hit. For example, a hit with an E-value of 1.0 implies that one hit with a score equal to or better than the hit being scored would be expected at random from a sequence library search . The search results with OMSSA can vary substantially with differing search parameters, sequence libraries, and samples . Therefore, we adopted the MS/MS false discovery rate (FDR) instead of E-value as scoring criterion for evaluating the four databases, and this method is based on commonly used scoring methodologies and the target-decoy search strategy . All other OMSSA search parameters  for the four databases are the same. To increase identification accuracy, only peptides/proteins with at least two hits of different samples was recognized as true peptides/proteins.
Summary of Search Results When MS/MS FDR ≤ 0.01
Target MS2 hits
Decoy MS2 hits
Target peptide hits
Decoy peptide hits
Target protein/gene hits
Decoy protein/gene hits
Target PEPPI hits
Decoy PEPPI hits
From the four human fetal liver MS data sets, we identified 63 peptides which mapped to 74 PEPPI peptides and 9 SNP events using PEPPI_with_SNP (See additional file 1). Among the 74 PEPPI peptides, 55 EXON_KB type peptides were also annotated previously in IPI, and 19 peptides were novel peptides uniquely identified with the PEPPI database (13 E_E_KB type peptides, 2 E_E_TH type peptides, 1 I_E_TH type peptide, and 3 E_I_TH type peptides).
The peptide hit matrix shows the number of PEPPI peptides mapped to the peptides detected from the samples, and the number of samples (N) in which the peptide is detected (See additional file 2).
Discussion and perspectives
We created a comprehensive PEPPI database of both annotated and hypothetical peptides representing human protein isoforms for MS analysis. The PEPPI database made it possible for high-throughput identification of gene variations, exon expression, and alternative splicing events at the proteome level. We also constructed a web-server for searching and visualizing the peptides. With the user-friendly interface and powerful search functions, users can easily study the alternative splicing events and gene variations related to any gene, protein, or peptide sequence of interest.
Comparison with Conventional MS Methods
MS with PEPPI
Conventional MS Methods
Same as right
Ordinary proteome samples
Same as right
Ordinary MS equipments
Same as right
SEQUEST, Mascot, OMSSA etc.
PEPPI or subset of PEPPI
Conventional protein sequence databases (IPI, UniProtKB, e.g.)
1. Exonic region
2. Exon-Exon combinations (annotated transcripts)
3. Exon-Intron combinations
4. Intron-Exon combinations
5. Hypothetical Exon-Exon combinations
6. SNP peptides
Pre-defined by database producer
Same as right
Not very expensive
Since the database incorporated a large number of hypothetical peptides, it is possible that the search result contains false positives due to the noise. To solve this problem, we will design an optimized routine for MS data analysis. For example, users may analyze several samples at one time, and only keep the peptides detected in more than one sample. On the other hand, a recently published article  reported tissue dependent splicing patterns, which make it possible to generate tissue specific PEPPI peptides and reduce the chance of incorporating false positives.
In the future, we plan to enhance the user interface of the web application such as replacing the static download page with an interactive batch-download interface, where users can specify the peptide type, gene IDs and protein IDs. We also plan to improve the performance of peptide sequence search with parallel computing and a more powerful database server.
Genome data source
A data pre-processing procedure (Figure 7B) was implemented to remove non-coding genes and SNPs which are not in exonic regions.
Firstly we imported all the source tables into a SQLite3 database with the SQLite3 command-line interface, and then we used SQL statements to remove non-coding genes. The Gene-Protein Mapping was utilized as a filter, and genes not mapped to proteins were considered as non-coding genes. The Coding Gene Sequence and Coding Gene Structure table was derived after filtering, and 21,351 protein-coding genes were captured.
Then we compiled a C program with the SQLite3 library to extract the annotated transcription information from the Coding Gene Structure table, and produced two tables. The Exon Knowledgebase table describes all the protein-coding exons, and the Exon Comb Knowledgebase table describes all the exon-exon combinations found in the annotated transcripts. Then the SNP table was searched against the Exon Knowledgebase table, and 390,539 SNPs within the annotated coding exons were retrieved for peptide generation.
Peptide region generation
Data Generation Protocols
cDNA Sequence Length
Open Reading Frame (ORF)
Stop Codon Toleration
Annotated ORF Only
≤ 240 bp
Annotated ORF Only
≤ 240 bp
All 3 ORFs
In 3’ end segment
≤ 240 bp
All 3 ORFs
≤ 240 bp
All 3 ORFs
In 3’ end segment
For the EXON_KB type, the chromosome coordinate of the exons were derived directly from the Exon Knowledgebase table, and the whole length of the exon cDNA sequence was captured from the gene sequence. Then the exon’s cDNA sequences were translated into peptides according to the annotated ORF. In the peptide estimation process, if a stop codon existed anywhere except the end of the peptide, the corresponding region was considered invalid and was discarded.
Similar to the EXON_KB type, the chromosome coordinates of the two exons in the E_E_KB type were derived directly from the Exon Comb Knowledgebase table. Then the derived cDNA sequences were translated into peptides according to the annotated ORF of the exon on the 5’ end. The same peptide estimation protocol used with the EXON_KB type was applied to the E_E_KB type.
For the E_I_TH and I_E_TH type, the program derived the chromosome coordinates of exons from the Exon Knowledgebase table and spliced them with the adjacent introns. The cDNA flanking sequence on both side of the splice site was limited to 120 nucleotides. If the exon/intron is shorter than 120 nucleotides, the program will pull out the actual sequence. This limit was set according to the longest peptide in the HIP-2 database , which had a length of 80 amino acids and corresponded to 240 nucleotides in the cDNA sequence. This represents the length of the longest peptide that can be identified from an MS experiment. In this way we made sure that any MS identified peptide that crosses the splice site can be captured by the PEPPI database. In the peptide estimation process, a stop codon is tolerated in the intron of E_I_TH, but not tolerated anywhere expect the 3’ end in I_E_TH.
When producing the E_E_TH type of peptide regions, all possible exon-exon combinations were generated and searched against the Exon Comb table. Any combinations that cannot be found in the Exon Comb table were captured as an E_E_TH type candidate. Then each E_E_TH type cDNA was translated in all 3 ORFs, and if a stop codon was found in the 5’ end exon, the peptide was discarded. Note if more than one E_E_TH peptide derived from the 3 ORFs were considered valid, then a peptide region was created for each ORF.
PEPPI peptide generation
After the generation of peptide region, PEPPI peptides were produced by inserting non-synonymous SNPs into the wild-type peptide of the corresponding region (Figure 7C). All the non-synonymous SNPs within a peptide region were first captured in a list, and then inserted into the wild-type cDNA according to their chromosome coordinates. Each cDNA sequence with SNP was then translated into peptides. The peptides were then estimated according to the peptide estimation protocol of its own region type, and invalid ones were discarded. During peptide generation, a table of Peptide-SNP Mappings was also generated. The wild type peptides were also deposited in the PEPPI Peptide table.
Online PEPPI server design
This work was supported by a grant from the National Cancer Institute (U24CA126480-01), which is a part of NCI’s Clinical Proteomic Technologies Initiative (http://proteomics.cancer.gov). The grant was awarded to Dr. Fred Regnier (PI) and Dr. Jake Chen (co-PI). We thank the support of Indiana Center for Systems Biology and Personalized Medicine. We especially thank David Michael Grobe from UITS at Indiana University for thoroughly proofreading the manuscript. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for comments that helped us improve this manuscript.
This article has been published as part of BMC Bioinformatics Volume 11 Supplement 6, 2010: Proceedings of the Seventh Annual MCBIOS Conference. Bioinformatics: Systems, Biology, Informatics and Computation. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2105/11?issue=S6.
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