January 2012

W. Neal Burnette: the man behind the Western blot



Enjoying life to a tee
Burnette retired from the army in 2005 as a colonel. He now lives with his wife in Chapel Hill, N.C., on a property that has a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in its back yard. Burnette flies airplanes as a licensed commercial pilot, feeds his golf addiction (he plays, by his own admission, “terribly”) and occasionally consults for biotechnology companies.

For a man who’s worn many hats, he sounds wistful when talking about research, something he hasn’t done since he left Amgen. “I had the best time when I worked at the bench, filling a pipette,” he says. “I think that’s when I was most effective.”

Of the status of the Western blot today, he says, “I am happy to have done it and made a contribution to science that everybody uses. I could have never imagined that I would have my 15 minutes of fame last this long.”

  1. 1. Burnette, W. N. “Western blotting”: electrophoretic transfer of proteins from sodium dodecyl sulfate–polyacrylamide gels to unmodified nitrocellulose and radiographic detection with antibody and radioiodinated protein A. 1981) Anal. Biochem. 112, 195 – 203.
  2. 2. Southern, E. M. Detection of specific sequences among DNA fragments separated by gel electrophoresis. (1975) J. Mol. Biol. 98, 503 – 517.
  3. 3. Alwine, J. C., Kemp, D. J., and Stark, G. R. Method for detection of specific RNAs in agarose gels by transfer to diazobenzyloxymethyl-paper and hybridization with DNA probes. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. (1977) 74, 5350 – 5354.
  4. 4. Towbin, H., Staehelin, T., and Gordon, J. Electrophoretic transfer of proteins from polyacrylamide gels to nitrocellulose sheets: procedure and some applications. (1979) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 76, 4350 – 4354.

Raj_MukhopadhyayRajendrani Mukhopadhyay (rmukhopadhyay@asbmb.org) is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and the technical editor for the JBC.

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Nice article. So, is it "Western" or "western"? Or does either work, without a preference? - Bruce Maryanoff (bmaryano@scripps.edu)


I was a high school friend of Neil's and recall recognizing how committed he was to acting as we enjoyed a coke one evening at local hangout and he still had part of his make up on from a dress rehersal he had just attended. Little did I know how focused he would become on a wide range of endeavors or how greatly he would apply himself to so very many. I next met up with him at a 40th reunion and was thoroughly impressed by the reach of his shift to scientific discipline. At the time he was a full colonel filling a general's slot in the US Army. Congratulations to Neil on a life well lived and leaving a trail of useful accomplishments. And thanks to the author for seeing that such a life does not escape notice. James Sizemore - Bedford, TX.


I went to high school with Neil and we were good friends. After going our separate ways I lost touch with him. Now that we are retired I located him via facebook, and retrieved this article via that link. I used the western blot method while I was teaching and never knew it had a connection to an old buddy. I find the article fascinating, well written and a worthy tribute to someone who has so effectively contributed to scientific knowledge. I wish to thank the author for giving credit where credit was obviously due. A Cheer for Neil! With best regards, Gil R Alexander, Retired Director of the Montana Science Institute, and former President of the Montana Academy of Sciences



  • Neal: I just received an e-mail from Jim Kaper in which he said he and his wife had just returned from India with a visit to the Taj Mahal where he and I bumped into each other in 1990 by accident (we were there for different meetings). I was thus responding to him that you and I had visited there in 1992 and had our picture taken in front of the same minaret, except my picture with him was from 15 feet away since the place was crowded with 1000s of people whereas our picture was taken from over 100 feet away since we visited during a curfew where we had the whole place to ourselves with nobody but us and our guides! The two pictures are still on my bulletin board in my office to remind me of happy days and good friends. Hope all is well. Best regards, Roy

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