Protein-based radicals generated in the reaction of ferricytochrome c (cyt c) with H(2)O(2) were investigated by electrospray mass spectrometry (ESI-MS) using 3,5-dibromo-4-nitrosobenzenesulfonate (DBNBS). Up to four DBNBS-cyt c adducts were observed in the mass spectra. However, by varying the reaction conditions (0-5 molar equivalents of H(2)O(2) and substituting cyt c with its cyanide adduct which is resistant to peroxidation), noncovalent DBNBS adduct formation was inferred. Nonetheless, optical difference spectra revealed the presence of a small fraction of covalently trapped DBNBS. To probe the nature of the noncovalent DBNBS adducts, the less basic proteins, metmyoglobin (Mb) and alpha-lactalbumin, were substituted for cyt c in the cyt c/H(2)O(2)/DBNBS reaction. A maximum of two DBNBS adducts were observed in the mass spectra of the products of the Mb/H(2)O(2)/DBNBS reactions, whereas no adducts were detected following alpha-lactalbumin/H(2)O(2)/DBNBS incubation, which is consistent with adduct formation via spin trapping only. Titration with DBNBS at pH 2.0 yielded noncovalent DBNBS-cyt c adducts and induced folding of acid-denatured cyt c, as monitored by ESI-MS and optical spectroscopy, respectively. Thus, the noncovalent DBNBS-cyt c mass adducts observed are assigned to ion pair formation occurring between the negatively charged sulfonate group on DBNBS and positively charged surface residues on cyt c. The results reveal the pitfalls inherent in using mass spectral data with negatively charged spin traps such as DBNBS to identify sites of radical formation on basic proteins such as cyt c.