Profiling of protein species is important because gene polymorphisms, splice variations and post-translational modifications may combine and give rise to multiple protein species that have different effects on cellular function. Two-dimensional gel electrophoresis is one of the most robust methods for differential analysis of protein species, but bioinformatic interrogation is challenging because the consequences of changes in the abundance of individual protein species on cell function are unknown and cannot be predicted. We conducted DIGE of soleus muscle from male and female rats artificially selected as either high- or low-capacity runners (HCR and LCR, respectively). In total 696 protein species were resolved and LC–MS/MS identified proteins in 337 spots. Forty protein species were differentially (P < 0.05, FDR < 10%) expressed between HCR and LCR and conditional independence mapping found distinct networks within these data, which brought insight beyond that achieved by functional annotation. Protein disulphide isomerase A3 emerged as a key node segregating with differences in aerobic capacity and unsupervised bibliometric analysis highlighted further links to signal transducer and activator of transcription 3, which were confirmed by western blotting. Thus, conditional independence mapping is a useful technique for interrogating DIGE data that is capable of highlighting latent features.
Biological significance: Quantitative proteome profiling revealed that there is little or no sexual dimorphism in the skeletal muscle response to artificial selection on running capacity. Instead we found that noncanonical STAT3 signalling may be associated with low exercise capacity and skeletal muscle insulin resistance. Importantly, this discovery was made using unsupervised multivariate association mapping and bibliometric network analyses. This allowed our interpretation of the findings to be guided by patterns within the data rather than our preconceptions about which proteins or processes are of greatest interest. Moreover, we demonstrate that this novel approach can be applied to 2D gel analysis, which is unsurpassed in its ability to profile protein species but currently has few dedicated bioinformatic tools.