Blotting: Southern, Northern, and Western
Limitations of Gel ElectrophoresisGel electrophoresisElectrophoresis (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Using gel electrophoresis to separate proteins and nucleic acids has been an invaluable tool in analyzing living systems. Changes in these molecules—such as a mobility shift in a mutant protein or the change in the size of a plasmid that has received a DNA insert—can be easily detected using this technique. However, the ability to differentiate between types of molecules is quite limited. An extract of red blood cell proteins run through an acrylamide gel might show one major band for hemoglobin that can be discerned from the many other proteins in the cell. However, the hundreds of different proteins that might be produced in a liver extract will produce a tight ladder of bands that are impossible to tell apart.
The situation can be even worse with DNA. A restriction enzyme digest of a plasmid or simple virus might yield fewer than six pieces of DNA that could be easily separated on an agarose gel. If one were to digest the total genomic DNA of even a simple organism, such as Escherichia coli, with a typical restriction enzyme such as EcoRI, the result would be a thousand bands of numerous sizes (4 × 106 base pairs of DNA, since EcoRI recognizes a six-base-pair site, which should occur, on average, every 46 or 4,096 bp). After separation on a gel, the result would be a smear with no individual bands visible. Working with an even more complex...
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Basic Blotting Techniques (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
In 1975, Ed Southern developed a method that allowed the detection of specific DNA sequences after they had been separated by agarose gel electrophoresis. What makes a piece of DNA unique is the sequence of the nucleotides. This is most efficiently detected by the hybridization of the antiparallel strand. This can only occur if the two strands are separated into single strands. Therefore, the first step is to soak the agarose gel in a strong base, such as 1 molar sodium hydroxide, and high salt, which stabilizes the single-stranded form. The base is then neutralized with a strong buffer, such as tris-hydrochloride, again in high salt. The DNA can now be analyzed by its ability to hybridize to a radioactive piece of single-stranded DNA. Since this radioactive DNA can “explore” the different sequences to find the one matching sequence, it is also known as a probe (an instrument or device that can be used to explore and send back information).
Although the agarose is porous, it would be very slow and inefficient to try to perfuse the gel with radioactive probe and then remove the pieces that did not hybridize. Southern realized that he needed to move the DNA to a thin material to be able to probe it efficiently. The material chosen was nitrocellulose, consisting of a variant of paper (cellulose) with reactive nitro groups attached. The treated gel is placed on a sponge soaked with a high-salt solution. The...
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Expanded Techniques to Study RNA and Proteins (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
The basic method of blotting has been expanded to include the study of RNA and proteins. James Alwine developed a very similar method to transfer messenger RNA (mRNA) that had been separated on an agarose gel. Since the mRNA started as single-stranded, there was no need to treat the gel with denaturant. However, to block the formation of internal double-stranded regions, which could alter the migration during electrophoresis, the gel contained an organic solvent. Other than that, the two methods are very similar. Although the DNA transfer system was named the Southern blot in honor of Ed Southern, Alwine decided to defer the credit and called his system the Northern blot to indicate that it was related but in a different direction.
Similarly, when W. N. Burnette developed a system for transferring and detecting specific proteins, he named the system Western blotting. This system of naming has been expanded: A technique for detecting viral DNA in tree leaves was named the Midwestern blot and a variant of the Northern blot developed in Israel was named the Middle Eastern blot.
Since proteins are generally smaller than DNA fragments, they are usually separated on polyacrylamide gels, which have a much smaller pore size than agarose gels. It is therefore necessary to use electrical current to pull the proteins out of the gel. The nitrocellulose is pressed onto the gel with a porous plastic...
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Blotting in Genetic Analysis (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
The ability to detect individual molecules in a large background has been very important for genetic analyses. For instance, restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) analysis is a method that uses the change in the size of a DNA fragment in the genome, generated by restriction enzyme digestion as a genetic marker. The isolation of many disease genes, including the one causing Huntington’s disease, depended on RFLP mapping to localize the gene. It would not be possible to detect the changes in a single DNA fragment out of the millions generated by digesting the human genome without having the Southern blot to pick out the correct piece. Many other mutations that change a specific region of DNA—such as deletions, inversions, and duplications—are often detected by changes in a Southern blot pattern. The sensitivity of hybridization can be tuned to a level where probes that differ by only a single nucleotide will not attach efficiently. This allows the rapid identification of the positions of point mutations. When polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to amplify DNA from a crime scene or to detect human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the bloodstream, the presence of DNA pieces on a gel is not sufficient proof that the correct DNA has been found. The DNA must be blotted and probed with the expected sequence to confirm that it is the correct piece.
Northern blot analysis allows scientists to see how...
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Future Directions (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Blotting techniques are the most generally efficient methods for detecting specific proteins or nucleic acids. Most improvements in the past years have been aimed at speeding up the transfer process using vacuums or pressure or the hybridization process by changing the conditions. The next step will be developing silicon chips that can interact with specific nucleic acid or amino acid sequences and produce an electrical output when they “hybridize” with the correct sequence. This will diminish the time required to confirm a sequence from several hours to minutes.
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Further Reading (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Alwine, J. C., D. J. Kemp, and G. R. Stark. “Method for Detection of Specific RNAs in Agarose Gels by Transfer to Diazobenyloxymethyl-Paper and Hybridization with DNA Probes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 74 (1977): 5350. The original description of Northern blotting.
Burnette, W. N. “Western Blotting: Remembrance of Past Things.” Methods in Molecular Biology 536 (2009): 5-8. The scientist who devised the Western blotting technique recalls why the method was developed, how it works, and how its simplicity and relevance resulted in its expansive application as a research tool in biology and medicine.
Kurien, Biji T., and R. Hal Scofield. Protein Blotting and Detection: Methods and Protocols. New York: Humana Press, 2009. Researchers discuss numerous techniques based on the Western blot, providing advice for using these methods in a laboratory setting.
Southern, E. M. “Detection of Specific Sequences Among DNA Fragments Separated by Gel Electrophoresis.” Journal of Molecular Biology 98, no. 3 (1975): 503-517. The original description of Southern blotting and of blotting in general. This is one of the most often cited articles in biology research.
Walker, John M., and Ralph Rapley, eds. Molecular Biomethods Handbook. 2d ed. Totowa, N.J.: Humana Press, 2008. Describes the technologies that are used to investigate and define cellular...
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Web Sites of Interest (Genetics & Inherited Conditions)
Protocol Monkey.com. http://www.protocolmonkey.com/index.php. Protocol Monkey.com provides information about methods of laboratory research. The search engine will retrieve protocols about various types of blotting.
Westernblotting.com. http://www.westernblotting.org. A resource for Western blot methods, providing information about blotting protocols and research articles.
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