Protein purification is a series of processes intended to isolate a single type of protein from a complex mixture. Protein purification is vital for the characterisation of the function, structure and interactions of the protein of interest. The starting material is usually a biological tissue or a microbial culture. The various steps in the purification process may free the protein from a matrix that confines it, separate the protein and non-protein parts of the mixture, and finally separate the desired protein from all other proteins. Separation of one protein from all others is typically the most laborious aspect of protein purification. Separation steps exploit differences in protein size, physico-chemical properties and binding affinity.
Purification may be preparative or analytical. Preparative purifications aim to produce a relatively large quantity of purified proteins for subsequent use. Examples include the preparation of commercial products such as enzymes (e.g. lactase), nutritional proteins (e.g. soy protein isolate), and certain biopharmaceuticals (e.g. insulin). Analytical purification produces a relatively small amount of protein for a variety of research or analytical purposes, including identification, quantification, and studies of the protein's structure, post-translational modifications and function. Among the first purified proteins were urease and Concanavalin A.
Choice of a starting material is key to the design of a purification process. In a plant or animal, a particular protein usually isn't distributed homogeneously throughout the body; different organs or tissues have higher or lower concentrations of the protein. Use of only the tissues or organs with the highest concentration decreases the volumes needed to produce a given amount of purified protein. If the protein is present in low abundance, or if it has a high value, scientists may use recombinant DNA technology to develop cells that will produce large quantities of the desired protein (this is known as an expression system). Recombinant expression allows the protein to be tagged, e.g. by a His-tag, to facilitate purification, which means that the purification can be done in fewer steps. In addition to this recombinant expression usually starts with a higher fraction of the desired protein than is present in a natural source.
An analytical purification generally utilizes three properties to separate proteins. First, proteins may be purified according to their isolectric points by running them through a pH graded gel or an ion exchange column. Second, proteins can be separated according to their size or molecular weight via size exclusion chromatography or by SDS-PAGE (sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis) analysis. Proteins are often purified by using 2D-PAGE and are then analysed by peptide mass fingerprinting to establish the protein identity. This is very useful for scientific purposes and the detection limits for protein are nowadays very low and nanogram amounts of protein are sufficient for their analysis.
Evaluating purification yield
The most general method to monitor the purification process is by running a SDS-PAGE of the different steps. This method only gives a rough measure of the amounts of different proteins in the mixture, and it is not able to distinguish between proteins with similar molecular weight.
If the protein has a distinguishing spectroscopic feature or an enzymatic activity, this property can be used to detect and quantify the specific protein, and thus to select the fractions of the separation, that contains the protein. If antibodies against the protein are available then western blotting and ELISA can specifically detect and quantify the amount of desired protein. Some proteins function as receptors and can be detected during purification steps by a ligand binding assay, often using a radioactive ligand.
In order to evaluate the process of multistep purification, the amount of the specific protein have to be compared to the amount of total protein. The latter can be determined by the Bradford total protein assay or by absorbance of light at 280 nm, however some reagents used during the purification process may interfere with the quantification. For example, imidazole (commonly used for purification of polyhistidine-tagged recombinant proteins) is an amino acid analogue and at low concentrations will interfere with the bicinchoninic acid (BCA) assay for total protein quantification. Impurities in low-grade imidazole will also absorb at 280 nm, resulting in an inaccurate reading of protein concentration from UV absorbance.
Purification of a tagged protein
Adding a tag to the protein such as RuBPS gives the protein a binding affinity it would not otherwise have. Usually the recombinant protein is the only protein in the mixture with this affinity, which aids in separation. The most common tag is the Histidine-tag (His-tag), that has affinity towards nickel or cobalt ions. Thus by immobilizing nickel or cobalt ions on a resin, an affinity support that specifically binds to histidine-tagged proteins can be created. Since the protein is the only component with a His-tag, all other proteins will pass through the column, and leave the His-tagged protein bound to the resin. The protein is released from the column in a process called elution, which in this case involves adding imidazole, to compete with the His-tags for nickel binding, as it has a ring structure similar to histidine. The protein of interest is now the only protein component in the eluted mixture, and can easily be separated from any minor unwanted contaminants by a second step of purification, such as size exclusion chromatography or RP-HPLC.
Another way to tag proteins is to add an antigen peptide to the protein, and then purify the protein on a column containing immobilized antibody. This generates a very specific interaction usually only binding the desired protein.
When the tags are not needed anymore, they can be cleaved off by a protease. This often involves engineering a protease cleavage site between the tag and the protein.
Methods of protein purification
The methods used in protein purification, can roughly be divided into analytical and preparative methods. The distinction is not exact, but the deciding factor is the amount of protein, that can practically be purified with that method. Analytical methods aim to detect and identify a protein in a mixture, where as preparative methods aim to produce large quantities of the protein for other purposes, such as structural biology or industrial use. In general, the preparative methods can be used in analytical applications, but not the other way around.
Depending on the source, the protein has to be brought into solution by breaking the tissue or cells containing it. There are several methods to achieve this: Repeated freezing and thawing, sonication, homogenization by high pressure or permeabilization by organic solvents. The method of choice depends on how fragile the protein is and how sturdy the cells are. After this extraction process soluble proteins will be in the solvent, and can be separated from cell membranes, DNA etc. by centrifugation. The extraction process also extracts proteases, which will start digesting the proteins in the solution. If the protein is sensitive to proteolysis, it is usually desirable to proceed quickly, and keep the extract cooled, to slow down proteolysis.
Precipitation and differential solubilization
In bulk protein purification, a common first step to isolate proteins is precipitation with ammonium sulfate (NH4)2SO4. This is performed by adding increasing amounts of ammonium sulfate and collecting the different fractions of precipitate protein. One advantage of this method is that it can be performed inexpensively with very large volumes.
The first proteins to be purified are water-soluble proteins. Purification of integral membrane proteins requires disruption of the cell membrane in order to isolate any one particular protein from others that are in the same membrane compartment. Sometimes a particular membrane fraction can be isolated first, such as isolating mitochondria from cells before purifying a protein located in a mitochondrial membrane. A detergent such as sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) can be used to dissolve cell membranes and keep membrane proteins in solution during purification; however, because SDS causes denaturation, milder detergents such as Triton X-100 or CHAPS can be used to retain the protein's native conformation during purification.
Centrifugation is a process that uses centrifugal force to separate mixtures of particles of varying masses or densities suspended in a liquid. When a vessel (typically a tube or bottle) containing a mixture of proteins or other particulate matter, such as bacterial cells, is rotated at high speeds, the angular momentum yields an outward force to each particle that is proportional to its mass. The tendency of a given particle to move through the liquid because of this force is offset by the resistance the liquid exerts on the particle. The net effect of "spinning" the sample in a centrifuge is that massive, small, and dense particles move outward faster than less massive particles or particles with more "drag" in the liquid. When suspensions of particles are "spun" in a centrifuge, a "pellet" may form at the bottom of the vessel that is enriched for the most massive particles with low drag in the liquid. The remaining, non-compacted particles still remaining mostly in the liquid are called the "supernatant" and can be removed from the vessel to separate the supernatant from the pellet. The rate of centrifugation is specified by the angular acceleration applied to the sample, typically measured in comparison to the g. If samples are centrifuged long enough, the particles in the vessel will reach equilibrium wherein the particles accumulate specifically at a point in the vessel where their buoyant density is balanced with centrifugal force. Such an "equilibrium" centrifugation can allow extensive purification of a given particle.
Sucrose gradient centrifugation — a linear concentration gradient of sugar (typically sucrose, glycerol, or a silica based density gradient media, like Percoll) is generated in a tube such that the highest concentration is on the bottom and lowest on top. Percoll is a trademark owned by GE Healthcare companies. A protein sample is then layered on top of the gradient and spun at high speeds in an ultracentrifuge. This causes heavy macromolecules to migrate towards the bottom of the tube faster than lighter material. During centrifugation in the absence of sucrose, as particles move farther and farther from the center of rotation, they experience more and more centrifugal force (the further they move, the faster they move). The problem with this is that the useful separation range of within the vessel is restricted to a small observable window. Spinning a sample twice as long doesn't mean the particle of interest will go twice as far, in fact, it will go significantly further. However, when the proteins are moving through a sucrose gradient, they encounter liquid of increasing density and viscosity. A properly designed sucrose gradient will counteract the increasing centrifugal force so the particles move in close proportion to the time they have been in the centrifugal field. Samples separated by these gradients are referred to as "rate zonal" centrifugations. After separating the protein/particles, the gradient is then fractionated and collected.
Usually a protein purification protocol contains one or more chromatographic steps. The basic procedure in chromatography is to flow the solution containing the protein through a column packed with various materials. Different proteins interact differently with the column material, and can thus be separated by the time required to pass the column, or the conditions required to elute the protein from the column. Usually proteins are detected as they are coming off the column by their absorbance at 280 nm. Many different chromatographic methods exist:
Size exclusion chromatography
Chromatography can be used to separate protein in solution or denaturing conditions by using porous gels. This technique is known as size exclusion chromatography. The principle is that smaller molecules have to traverse a larger volume in a porous matrix. Consequentially, proteins of a certain range in size will require a variable volume of eluant (solvent) before being collected at the other end of the column of gel.
In the context of protein purification, the eluant is usually pooled in different test tubes. All test tubes containing no measurable trace of the protein to purify are discarded. The remaining solution is thus made of the protein to purify and any other similarly-sized proteins.
Separation based on charge or hydrophobicity
Ion exchange chromatography
Ion exchange chromatography separates compounds according to the nature and degree of their ionic charge. The column to be used is selected according to its type and strength of charge. Anion exchange resins have a positive charge and are used to retain and separate negatively charged compounds, while cation exchange resins have a negative charge and are used to separate positively charged molecules.
Before the separation begins a buffer is pumped through the column to equilibrate the opposing charged ions. Upon injection of the sample, solute molecules will exchange with the buffer ions as each competes for the binding sites on the resin. The length of retention for each solute depends upon the strength of its charge. The most weakly charged compounds will elute first, followed by those with successively stronger charges. Becauses of the nature of the separating mechanism, pH, buffer type, buffer concentration, and temperature all play important roles in controlling the separation.
Ion exchange chromatography is a very powerful tool for use in protein purification and is frequently used in both analytical and preparative separations.
Affinity Chromatography is a separation technique based upon molecular conformation, which frequently utilizes application specific resins. These resins have ligands attached to their surfaces which are specific for the compounds to be separated. Most frequently, these ligands function in a fashion similar to that of antibody-antigen interactions. This "lock and key" fit between the ligand and its target compound makes it highly specific, frequently generating a single peak, while all else in the sample is unretained.
Many membrane proteins are glycoproteins and can be purified by lectin affinity chromatography. Detergent-solubilized proteins can be allowed to bind to a chromatography resin that has been modified to have a covalently attached lectin. Proteins that do not bind to the lectin are washed away and then specifically bound glycoproteins can be eluted by adding a high concentration of a sugar that competes with the bound glycoproteins at the lectin binding site. Some lectins have high affinity binding to oligosaccharides of glycoproteins that is hard to compete with sugars, and bound glycoproteins need to be released by denaturing the lectin.
A common technique involves engineering a sequence of 6 to 8 histidines into the C-terminal of the protein. The polyhistidine binds strongly to divalent metal ions such as nickel and cobalt. The protein can be passed through a column containing immobilized nickel ions, which binds the polyhistidine tag. All untagged proteins pass through the column. The protein can be eluted with imidazole, which competes with the polyhistidine tag for binding to the column, or by a decrease in pH (typically to 4.5), which decreases the affinity of the tag for the resin. While this procedure is generally used for the purification of recombinant proteins with an engineered affinity tag (such as a 6xHis tag or Clontech's HAT tag), it can also be used for natural proteins with an inherent affinity for divalent cations.
Immunoaffinity chromatography uses the specific binding of an antibody to the target protein to selectively purify the protein. The procedure involves immobilizing an antibody to a column material, which then selectively binds the protein, while everything else flows through. The protein can be eluted by changing the pH or the salinity. Because this method does not involve engineering in a tag, it can be used for proteins from natural sources.
High performance liquid chromatography or high pressure liquid chromatography is a form of chromatography applying high pressure to drive the solutes through the column faster. This means that the diffusion is limited and the resolution is improved. The most common form is "reversed phase" hplc, where the column material is hydrophobic. The proteins are eluted by a gradient of increasing amounts of an organic solvent, such as acetonitrile. The proteins elute according to their hydrophobicity. After purification by HPLC the protein is in a solution that only contains volatile compounds, and can easily be lyophilized. HPLC purification frequently results in denaturation of the purified proteins and is thus not applicable to proteins that do not spontaneously refold.
Concentration of the purified protein
At the end of a protein purification, the protein often has to be concentrated. Different methods exist.
If the solution doesn't contain any other soluble component than the protein in question the protein can be lyophilized (dried). This is commonly done after a HPLC run. This simply removes all volatile component leaving the proteins behind.
Ultrafiltration concentrates a protein solution using selective permeable membranes. The function of the membrane is to let the water and small molecules pass through while retaining the protein. The solution is forced against the membrane by mechanical pump or gas pressure or centrifugation.
Gel electrophoresis is a common laboratory technique that can be use both as preparative and analytical method. The principle of electrophoresis relies on the movement of a charged ion in an electric field. In practice, the proteins are denatured in a solution containing a detergent (SDS). In these conditions, the proteins are unfolded and coated with negatively charged detergent molecules. The proteins in SDS-PAGE are separated on the sole basis of their size.
In analytical methods, the protein migrate as bands based on size. Each band can be detected using stains such as Coomassie blue dye or silver stain. Preparative methods to purify large amounts of protein, require the extraction of the protein from the electrophoretic gel. This extraction may involve excision of the gel containing a band, or eluting the band directly off the gel as it runs off the end of the gel.
In the context of a purification strategy, denaturing condition electrophoresis provides an improved resolution over size exclusion chromatography, but does not scale to large quantity of proteins in a sample as well as the late chromatography columns.
An important non-denaturing electrophoretic procedure for isolating bioactive metalloproteins in complex protein mixtures is termed 'quantitative native continuous polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (QPNC-PAGE).
- Immunoaffinity chromatography of enzymes Ehle H, Horn A. Bioseparation. 1990;1(2):97-110.
- High-performance liquid chromatography of biopolymers Regnier FE Science. 1983 Oct 21;222(4621):245-52
- Protein Purification: Column Chromatography - Ion exchange; Dialysis and Concentration
- Recombinant Protein Expression