Iso Electric Focusing

Iso Electric Focusing

Isoelectric focusing (IEF), also known as electrofocusing, is a technique for separating different molecules by differences in their isoelectric point (pI). It is a type of zone electrophoresis, usually performed on proteins in a gel.

Isoelectric focusing in laboratory

IEF involves adding an ampholyte solution into immobilized pH gradient (IPG) gels. IPGs are the acrylamide gel matrix co-polymerized with the pH gradient, which result in completely stable gradients except the most alkaline (>12) pH values. The immobilized pH gradient is obtained by the continuous change in the ratio of Immobilines. An Immobiline is a weak acid or base defined by its pK value.

A protein that is in a pH region below its isoelectric point (pI) will be positively charged and so will migrate towards the cathode (negatively charged electrode). As it migrates through a gradient of increasing pH, however, the protein’s overall charge will decrease until the protein reaches the pH region that corresponds to its pI. At this point it has no net charge and so migration ceases (as there is no electrical attraction towards either electrode). As a result, the proteins become focused into sharp stationary bands with each protein positioned at a point in the pH gradient corresponding to its pI. The technique is capable of extremely high resolution with proteins differing by a single charge being fractionated into separate bands.

Molecules to be focused are distributed over a medium that has a pH gradient (usually created by aliphatic ampholytes). An electric current is passed through the medium, creating a “positive” anode and “negative” cathode end. Negatively charged molecules migrate through the pH gradient in the medium toward the “positive” end while positively charged molecules move toward the “negative” end. As a particle moves towards the pole opposite of its charge it moves through the changing pH gradient until it reaches a point in which the pH of that molecules isoelectric point is reached. At this point the molecule no longer has a net electric charge and as such will not proceed any further within the gel.

The method is applied particularly often in the study of proteins, which separate based on their relative content of acidic and basic residues, whose value is represented by the pI. Proteins are introduced into an Immobilized pH gradient gel composed of polyacrylamide, starch, or agarose where a pH gradient has been established. Gels with large pores are usually used in this process to eliminate any “sieving” effects, or artifacts in the pI caused by differing migration rates for proteins of differing sizes. Isoelectric focusing can resolve proteins that differ in pI value by as little as 0.01.Isoelectric focusing is the first step in two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, in which proteins are first separated by their pI and then further separated by molecular weight through SDS-PAGE.


Two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, abbreviated as 2-DE or 2-D electrophoresis, is a form of gel electrophoresis commonly used to analyze proteins. Mixtures of proteins are separated by two properties in two dimensions on 2D gels. 2-DE was first independently introduced by O’Farrell and Klose in 1975.

Basis for separation

2-D electrophoresis it begins with 1-D electrophoresis but then separates the molecules by a second property in a direction 90 degrees from the first. In 1-D electrophoresis, proteins (or other molecules) are separated in one dimension, so that all the proteins/molecules will lie along a lane but that the molecules are spread out across a 2-D gel. Because it is unlikely that two molecules will be similar in two distinct properties, molecules are more effectively separated in 2-D electrophoresis than in 1-D electrophoresis.

The two dimensions that proteins are separated in this technique can be isoelectric point, protein complex mass in the native state, and protein mass.

Separation of proteins by isoelectric point is called isoelectric focusing (IEF). Thereby, a gradient of pH is applied to a gel and an electric potential is applied across the gel, making one end more positive than the other. At all pH values other than their isoelectric point, proteins will be charged. If they are positively charged, they will be pulled towards the more negative end of the gel and if they are negatively charged they will be pulled to the more positive end of the gel. The proteins applied in the first dimension will move along the gel and will accumulate at their isoelectric point; that is, the point at which the overall charge on the protein is 0 (a neutral charge).

In native polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (native PAGE), proteins remain in their native state and are separated in the electric field following their mass and the mass of their complexes respectively. To obtain a separation by size and not by net charge, as in IEF, an additional charge is transferred to the proteins by the use of Coomassie Brilliant Blue or lithium dodecyl sulfate. After completion of the first dimension the complexes are destroyed by applying the denaturing SDS-PAGE in the second dimension, where the proteins of which the complexes are composed of are separated by their mass.

Detecting proteins

The result of this is a gel with proteins spread out on its surface. These proteins can then be detected by a variety of means, but the most commonly used stains are silver and Coomassie Brilliant Blue staining. In the former case, a silver colloid is applied to the gel. The silver binds to cysteine groups within the protein. The silver is darkened by exposure to ultra-violet light. The amount of silver can be related to the darkness, and therefore the amount of protein at a given location on the gel. This measurement can only give approximate amounts, but is adequate for most purposes. Silver staining is 100x more sensitive than Coomassie Brilliant Blue with a 40-fold range of linearity.




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