March 2012

The men behind Western blotting



 open_channels_burnette   open_channels_stark   open_channels_towbin 
Burnette  Stark Towbin

The Gordon group submitted a description of their method to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in June 1979, which appeared in the journal in September (7). The timing of the publications was such that the two groups were unaware of each other’s work until publication.

Stark says his own lab became nitrocellulose converts once appropriate nitrocellulose membranes became commercially available. DBM-paper, which has to be made chemically active prior to immunoblotting, “is not as convenient as just picking up a piece of paper out of a package and blotting directly onto it,” he says. “There is no question that blotting onto the appropriate derivatives of nitrocellulose was the way to go.”

Burnette was unaware of the work done by the two groups as he was developing his approach but saw the Stark and Gordon groups’ papers in print while he was preparing his manuscript. But he felt that his method was different enough to press ahead. He focused on electrophoretically transferring proteins out of SDS-polyacrylamide gels onto nitrocellulose in a more quantitative manner. When Burnette finally got his paper published, he called the approach “Western blotting” in the title and explained the rationale for the name at the end of the introduction (8). For this reason, Burnette is credited for giving protein immunoblotting its nickname (9).

But Stark says his group was calling its method by the same name well before the Burnette paper showed up, although they never used it in their publication. It was completely logical for both Stark and Burnette to come up with the same name: Both were located at research institutions on the West Coast, and the directional joke of blotting was well known by that point (researchers later referred to blotting of post-translational modifications, such as lipids and sugars, as “Eastern blotting”).

The three men have said that they were surprised by the method’s success and longevity. Indeed, apart from changes in detection methods and other tweaks, the method’s principle has persisted unchanged since the 1970s (10).

Towbin is especially amused by how the passage of time has erased the memory of the hard work that went into developing the ubiquitous biochemical tool. “The younger generation of biologists takes the method for granted!” he chuckles.

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Note to the author: when referring to RNA or DNA blotting, it should not be called immunoblotting since doesn't rely on the use of antibodies to detect molecules as in western blotting. Editor's note: Thank you. The article has been corrected.



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