CST BLOG: Lab Expectations

The official blog of Cell Signaling Technology (CST), where we discuss what to expect from your time at the bench, share tips, tricks, and information.

Have You Ever Wondered: What's The Lowdown on Phospho-Specific Antibodies?

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Early exploration of unmapped biological signaling pathways was carried out using radiolabeled phospho-imaging. The development of phospho-specific antibodies to detect and quantify protein phosphorylation made life easier for researchers (less 32P waste to deal with), but the interpretation of data from these experiments comes with its own set of caveats. 

Detecting Protein Phosphorylation Modifications

A balance of cascading kinases and opposing phosphatases determine when and where signals are propagated by adding and removing phospho groups, respectively. Protein phosphorylation modifications were first observed at Ser/Thr and His/Asp residues, and tyrosine phosphorylation was discovered subsequently. These protein modifications relay information from protein to protein in vast, interconnected networks, and touch just about every important biological function from cell cycle to metabolism, from nervous system function to immune responses, and from tissue development to cancer.

Evolutionary map of kinase families

To follow the signal, you'll want to know the phosphorylation state of your target protein. Antibodies that recognize peptide motifs in the phosphorylated state are valuable research tools in western blotting (WB) and in other applications. These range from antibodies that broadly recognize phosphorylation in many proteins (for example, phospho-tyrosine), to those that recognize PTM motifs defined (with varying degrees of degeneracy) by neighboring residues, to those that are specific for a PTM in a specific peptide. For most scientists pursuing a signaling hypothesis, peptide-specific phosphoprotein antibodies are the tool of choice when they are available.

When using phosphoprotein antibodies in WB, one must keep in mind the rarity of these modifications, appreciate the fragility of the phosphopeptide (phosphoester) bond, and be aware of the risk of artefactual dephosphorylation by prowling phosphatases. Cavalier laboratory practices make it harder to detect your phosphoprotein, whether by loss of the phospate group (phosphatases not inhibited), protein degradation (proteases not inhibited), or by reducing the effectiveness of antibody detection.

Considerations for Using Phosphoprotein Antibodies in WB:

  • To ensure your target phosphoprotein is still phosphorylated and not degraded, include phosphatase and protease inhibitors (see Protease/Phosphatase Inhibitor Cocktail (100X) #5872) in the lysis buffer. You may also want to consider kinase inhibitors1.
  • Work fast, keep it cold, and sonicate to obtain total cell lysis (see the Western Blotting Protocol). The speed of tissue procurement and treatment, sample cooling, and thorough disaggregation are essential to minimize phosphatase/protease activity and to preserve your signal1-5.
  • Pay attention to pH. Although phosphoserine, phosphotyrosine, and phosphothreonine bonds are stable in non-physiological pH, antigen recognition may be negatively impacted by changes in pH for some antibodies. In addition, electrophoretic resolution and membrane transfer can be adversely affected if the pH is off in the running or transfer buffers, respectively.
  • We recommend using 5% Nonfat Dry Milk #9999 in 1X TBS, 0.1% Tween 20 to block the membrane prior to the introduction of antibodies. We do not see background or cross-reactivity with milk proteins, including casein. With regard to phosphatase activity, the pasteurization process kills all alkaline phosphatase activity in milk.
  • Check the product webpage/datasheet for recommended antibody dilution. Note that while the membrane is blocked with nonfat dry milk, phospho-specific antibodies are often diluted and incubated with the membrane in 5% BSA.
  • Use TBS-T rather than PBS-T in wash/incubation buffers since the phosphate ion may lead to interference.*
  • If you plan on stripping and re-probing the blot, probe for the phosphoprotein first since the stripping process often leads to loss/degradation of the phosphoprotein antigen. Due to the likelihood of low abundance of the antigen, we recommend incubation overnight at 4°C with the primary anti-phosphoprotein antibody (see the Western Blot Troubleshooting Guide). The blot can then be stripped and re-probed with an antibody against the total protein, which serves as a loading/transfer control.
  • Multiplexing fluorescent reporters (see the Fluorescent Western Blotting Protocol) can allow the total protein and the phosphoprotein to be measured simultaneously, provided you have the imaging capability.
  • We recommend using a positive control to confirm that detected bands are phosphorylated. The use of specific activators and inhibitors to manipulate activation of signaling proteins, or comparison of blocking with phosphorylated vs nonphosphorylated epitope peptides, may also be employed. Phosphatase treatment is commonly used as a negative control to complement other experimental perturbations.
  • Phosphoproteins are frequently in low stoichiometric abundance. A null result can and probably should be verified by concentrating the antigen by immunoprecipitation. 

Finally, if all the experimental details are optimized, you should be able to detect that elusive phosphoprotein, at least one phosphorylation site at a time. However, multiple phosphorylation sites may be present, leading to additional levels of complexity. Then, it might be time to visit your local mass spectroscopy core facility, or call a CST scientist about using our PTMScan® services.

*You might be wondering about the use of PBS in other protocols such as immunofluorescence and flow cytometry. In those protocols, macromolecules are crosslinked with aldehydes, and the primary amines present in tris (a component of TBS) can interfere, making PBS advantageous. The value of PBS vs TBS in WB has historically been somewhat contentious, and may be antibody/epitope specific.

Select References:

  1. V. Espina et al., A portrait of tissue phosphoprotein stability in the clinical tissue procurement process. Mol Cell Proteomics 7, 1998-2018 (2008).
  2. K. A. David et al., Surgical procedures and postsurgical tissue processing significantly affect expression of genes and EGFR-pathway proteins in colorectal cancer tissue. Oncotarget 5, 11017-11028 (2014).
  3. A. S. Gajadhar et al., Phosphotyrosine signaling analysis in human tumors is confounded by systemic ischemia-driven artifacts and intra-specimen heterogeneity. Cancer Res 75, 1495-1503 (2015).
  4. S. Gundisch et al., Critical roles of specimen type and temperature before and during fixation in the detection of phosphoproteins in breast cancer tissues. Lab Invest 95, 561-571 (2015).
  5. A. P. Theiss, D. Chafin, D. R. Bauer, T. M. Grogan, G. S. Baird, Immunohistochemistry of colorectal cancer biomarker phosphorylation requires controlled tissue fixation. PLoS One 9, e113608 (2014).
Kenneth Buck, PhD
Kenneth Buck, PhD
A cell biologist by training, Ken received a PhD at Rutgers and continued as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, where he studied cytoskeletal dynamics and signaling mechanisms involved in the cellular motility of regenerating neurons. At CST, Ken collaborates with scientists to create multimedia scientific communications. When he's not writing video scripts or in the studio, he can be observed in his natural habitat, mountain biking with colleagues on the rocky North Shore of Massachusetts.

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