Western blotting, ELISA and other assay techniques depend on probes that are detectable via chemical tags of one sort or another. Antibodies are the most common basis for designing specific probes. Radioactive isotopes, enzymes and fluorescent dyes are different types of chemical tags that have been used to make probes detectable. This article provides an overview of the types and features of detectable probes.


Most analysis methods, including Western blotting and ELISA, that are designed to measure the presence or quantity of specific proteins or other molecules in biological samples depend on the use of target-specific probes that are detectable via chemical tags or labels. Antibodies are the most common type of probe; their binding affinity for particular antigens enable those targets to be "found" and detected in a complex sample. However, antibodies are themselves proteins, and they are not specifically detectable in an assay system unless they are tagged for visualization or secondarily probed with another molecule that is tagged.

Different types of chemical labels or tags can be conjugated to secondary or primary antibodies and other molecules to facilitate their visualization (i.e., detection and measurement) by various methods. Radioisotopes were used extensively in the past, but they are expensive, have a short shelf-life, offer no improvement in signal:noise ratio and require special handling and disposal. Enzymes and fluorophores have largely replaced radioactive isotopes as detectable tags for assays. A number of advancements in reagents and instrumentation make these newer technologies more versatile and powerful. Enzymatic tags such as horseradish peroxidase (HRP) are most commonly used for blotting, immunoassays and immunohistochemistry methods. Variants of the bioluminescent enzyme luciferase are also increasingly used for in vivo detection, cell viability assays and reporter gene assays. Fluorescent tags are used predominately for cellular imaging, nucleic acid amplification and sequencing and microarrays; however, fluorescence technology is developing rapidly for application in all types of assays.

An antibody that recognizes the target antigen is called the "primary antibody." If this antibody is labeled with a tag, direct detection of the antigen is possible. Usually, however, the primary antibody is not labeled for direct detection. Instead a "secondary antibody" that has been labeled with a detectable tag is applied in a second step to probe for the primary antibody, which is bound to the target antigen. Thus, the antigen is detected indirectly.

Another form of indirect detection involves using a primary or secondary antibody that is labeled with an affinity tag such as biotin. Then a secondary (or tertiary) probe, such as streptavidin that is labeled with the detectable enzyme or fluorophore tag, can be used to probe for the biotin tag to yield a detectable signal.

Several variants of these probing and detection strategies exist. However, each one depends on a specific probe (e.g., a primary antibody) whose presence is linked directly or indirectly to some sort of measurable tag (e.g., an enzyme whose activity can produce a colored product upon reaction with its substrate).

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Primary antibodies as probes

Thousands of primary antibodies are commercially available for protein targets that have any history of investigation in biological research. Except for a few very popular research targets, these primary antibodies are offered without detectable tags, and some sort of secondary (indirect) detection method is required in assay methods. Nevertheless, nearly any antibody can be labeled with biotin, HRP enzyme or one of several fluorophores if needed.

Depending on the application to be performed, different levels of purity and types of specificity are needed in a supplied primary antibody. To name just a few parameters, antibodies may be monoclonal or polyclonal, supplied as antiserum or affinity-purified solution, and validated for native protein or denatured protein detection.

If no antibodies exist for an antigen of interest, new antibodies can be produced (raised) using well established techniques for immunizing animals with prepared forms of the antigen. A variety of reagent are available to assist in antibody production and purification, and various companies specialize in antibody production services.

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Secondary antibodies as probes

Most primary antibodies are produced in mouse, rabbit or one of several other species. Nearly all of these are antibodies of the IgG class. Therefore, it is relatively easy and economical for manufacturers to produce and supply ready-to-use, labeled secondary antibodies for most applications and detection systems.

Even so, several hundred options are available, differing in the level of purity, IgG- and species-specificity, and detection label. The choice of secondary antibody depends upon the species of animal in which the primary antibody was raised (the host species). For example, if the primary antibody is a mouse monoclonal antibody then the secondary antibody must be an anti-mouse antibody obtained from a host other than the mouse.

Biotin-binding proteins as probes

The highly specific affinity interaction between biotin (a small vitamin molecule) and avidin or streptavidin protein is the basis for many kinds of detection and affinity-purification methods. Biotin is very small (244 Daltons), so its covalent attachment to antibodies or other probes rarely interferes with their functions. Yet its presence as a tag on a probe allows efficient and specific secondary detection with either avidin or streptavidin. Both kinds of biotin-binding proteins are available in purified forms labeled with enzymatic or fluorescent tags that enable detection in many kinds of assays systems.

Many biotinylation reagents and kits are available that allow efficient and stable labeling of nearly any kind of antibody, protein or other macromolecule. Even probing systems (such as EMSA) that are not based on antibodies can be adapted for detection using avidin-biotin chemistry. In addition, biotin systems have several features that enable signal amplification to yield high sensitivity.

Both avidin and streptavidin bind very strongly and specifically to biotin. However, each protein have their limitations in certain assays. Avidin, is glycosylated which may lead to nonspecific lectin binding in assays. However, streptavidin contains a RYD motif, a bacterial recognition sequence, that can cause background binding with certain samples. Another alternative is to use NeutrAvidin Protein which is an exclusive, deglycosylated form of avidin that avoids the drawbacks of both native avidin and streptavidin.

Enzyme labels for detection

Enzymatic labels are most commonly used as secondary antibody (or streptavidin) tags for detection in blotting and immunoassays. Enzymes provide detectable signal via their activity; reaction with a specific substrate chemical yields a colored, light-emitting, or fluorescent product. While reporter enzymes like beta-galactosidase and luciferase have been successfully used to make probes, alkaline phosphatase (AP) and horseradish peroxidase (HRP) are the two enzymes used most extensively as labels for protein detection. An array of chromogenic, fluorogenic and chemiluminescent substrates is available for use with either enzyme.

Alkaline phosphatase, usually isolated from calf intestine, is a large (140 kDa) protein that catalyzes the hydrolysis of phosphate groups from a substrate molecule resulting in a colored or fluorescent product or the release of light as a byproduct of the reaction. AP has optimal enzymatic activity at a basic pH (pH 8-10) and can be inhibited by cyanides, arsenate, inorganic phosphate and divalent cation chelators, such as EDTA. As a label for Western blotting, AP offers a distinct advantage over other enzymes. Because its reaction rate remains linear, detection sensitivity can be improved by simply allowing a reaction to proceed for a longer time period.

Horseradish peroxidase is a 40 kDa protein that catalyzes the oxidation of substrates by hydrogen peroxide, resulting in a colored or fluorescent product or the release of light as a byproduct of the reaction. HRP functions optimally at a near-neutral pH and can be inhibited by cyanides, sulfides and azides. Antibody-HRP conjugates are superior to antibody-AP conjugates with respect to the specific activities of both the enzyme and antibody. In addition, its high turnover rate, good stability, low cost and wide availability of substrates makes HRP the enzyme of choice for most applications. Because of the small size of the HRP enzyme, further increases in sensitivity may be achieved by using poly-HRP conjugated secondary antibodies and may eliminate the need for using ABC type amplification systems for some researchers.

Luciferase reporters for bioluminescence detection

Although luciferase enzymes could be grouped into the enzymatic labels section, the scope that these proteins are used in biomedical research is more diverse than that of other enzymatic label. Bioluminescent light emitted from luciferase differs from fluorescent light, in that the light is a product of an enzymatic reaction rather than the release of energy that is initially absorbed by a fluorescent molecule. Because luciferase enzymes are bioactive proteins, they can be expressed in cells or even live animals to detect proteins, small molecules or gene expression in real time.

Luciferase enzymes have been isolated from a large number of animal species that use them for defense, camouflage, mating and feeding, and each species-specific luciferase has distinct characteristics that provide flexibility for use in biological assays. These characteristics include size, cofactor requirements (Mg, ATP), substrate (D-luciferin, coelenterazine), light emission spectra reaction kinetics and whether or not the enzyme is secreted. These characteristics provide a wide range of detection sensitivities and emission time to accomodate different single- and multiplex experimental designs.

Fluorescent labels for detection

Historically, fluorophore-labeled secondary antibodies and other probes were used in a small number of cell biology applications such as flow cytometry (FC), fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) and immunohistochemistry (IHC) using fluorescence microscopy. Until recently, the two most common fluorophores for labeling probes were fluorescein (fluorescein isothiocyanate, FITC) and rhodamine (tetramethyl rhodamine isothiocyanate, TRITC). Other labels include fluorescent proteins such as the various forms of green fluorescent protein (GFP) and the phycobiliproteins (allophycocyanin, phycocyanin, phycoerythrin and phycoerythrocyanin). While having the ability to produce an intense fluorescent signal for detection, fluorescent proteins can be difficult to optimize for conjugation purposes and may create steric hindrance or background signal issues in binding assays.

The use of fluorophore-conjugated probes in blotting and immunoassays requires fewer steps compared to the use of enzymatic labels because there is no substrate development step to perform. While the protocol is shorter, fluorescent detection requires special equipment and the sensitivity is not a high as that which can be obtained with enzymatic chemiluminescent systems. Although not as sensitive as enzymatic detection, fluorescent detection methods reduce chemical waste and have the added advantage of multiplex compatibility (using more than one fluorophore in the same experiment).

The growing demand for multiplex assays has driven the development of many new fluorescent dyes. These new fluorophores are brighter and more photostable than the traditional fluorescein and rhodamine molecules and comprise a broader range of non-overlapping spectra. Together with the advances in the digital imaging equipment, particularly infrared and near-infrared imaging, these new fluorophores enable extremely powerful analyses to be made in all types of protein detection techniques.