Understanding Western Blot Normalization

Normalization Webinar InvitationFor more information on Western blot normalization, watch these webinars:

chess piece - kingResearchers rely on Western blotting to detect target proteins in complex samples. This trusted technique is widely used to compare relative protein levels.

However, variability can creep into your Western blots through differences in sample preparation, sample loading, and transfer from gel to membrane. That’s why normalization is important. Normalization is the process of using internal loading controls to mathematically correct for sample-to-sample variation. These internal loading controls verify whether or not samples are uniformly loaded across the gel, confirm consistent transfer from gel to membrane, and enable comparison of relative protein levels between samples.

Normalization is meant to correct for small variation between samples, and can’t completely remove variability. If large data corrections are applied, accuracy may be affected. Normalization is a strategy to apply throughout your experiment, rather than a last step in the protocol. The more sources of variability you can reduce or eliminate, the more reproducible your experiment will be.

The role of an internal loading control is always to confirm the changes you see on the blot reflect actual change in the biology of your samples. To demonstrate statistically significant changes in the abundance of target protein, you need a reliable normalization strategy that fits the context and biology of your experiment. Effective, carefully-planned normalization will more accurately reflect the amount of protein in each lane.

chess piece - bishopUnderstanding Western blot normalization will help you choose a strategy that fits the context and biology of your experiment.

This paper describes important considerations, strengths, and limits of commonly used normalization strategies:

Western Blot Normalization: Challenges and Considerations for Quantitative Analysis

Are Western Blot Results Misrepresented by Film and Photochemistry?

Although most researchers have used film to document Western blots, many may be unfamiliar with the photochemical process that creates a visible image on a sheet of x-ray film. Because this process affects data output, it is important to understand how chemiluminescent signals are recorded by film – particularly if the results will be quantified by densitometry.1

What happens when you expose a Western blot to film?

X-ray film is coated with a photographic emulsion that contains light-sensitive silver grains. Photons of light from the chemiluminescent reaction activate individual silver grains, which are then converted to black metallic silver to create a visible film image. Within the film’s linear response range, your results are proportional to light intensity and duration; this is called the Reciprocity Law.

What goes wrong during film exposure?

Film’s linear response range is extremely narrow (1.0 – 1.5 logs). Above and below that narrow range, “reciprocity failure” occurs – and your bands won’t be proportional to the light produced by the chemiluminescent reaction. It’s important to know that both strong and faint signals are not accurately detected by film, which compromises the accuracy of your densitometry results.
film vs photchem image

How does reciprocity failure affect your densitometry and data analysis?

In this example, film response is only linear between 0.1 ng and 1.56 ng. Above 1.56 ng, bands visually appear stronger on film, but signals are not accurately recorded due to high intensity reciprocity failure.

film vs photochem image 2
RESULT: Strong bands are underestimated by densitometry. Film’s limited dynamic range interferes with accurate detection of strong signals.

Improve the accuracy of your results

The photochemistry of film causes a non-linear response of film to faint and strong signals (reciprocity failure). Saturation of strong signals and under-representation of faint signals means that accurate densitometry is severely limited by film’s shortcomings. When you switch to a digital imager, you will get more accurate results. Read the full paper to learn about all the variables that affect accurate quantification:

  • Enzyme/substrate kinetics and changes in substrate availability
  • Limitations of film exposure and digitization methods
  • Difficulty determining the saturation point of strong signals

Read the full study: Chemiluminescent Westerns: How film and photochemistry affect experimental results

1. Baskin, DG and WL Stahl. Fundamentals of quantitative autoradiography by computer densitometry for in situ hybridization, with emphasis on 33P.
41(12):1767-76 (1993).

Is Your Chemiluminescent Western Blot Imaging Method a Source of Error and Variability?

Chemiluminescence is a dynamic, enzymatic process that introduces variability and error in your Western blot experiments. It’s often difficult to find the “best” exposure, and the need for multiple exposures limits the reproducibility of your results.

Variability and error are introduced because:

  • Chemiluminescent reaction changes constantly.
    The “best” exposure time is a moving target, so you must optimize and double-check every experiment.
  • Multiple exposures are required.
    Common detection methods cannot accurately capture both faint and strong signals at once, without signal saturation.


Usable Data for Each Detection Method

Film Imager B Odyssey® Fc Imager
film usable range imager b usable range odyssey fc usable range
RESULT: Exposure time dramatically affects data output. Multiple exposures are required to detect strong and faint signals. Signal saturation cannot be determined visually. RESULT: Multiple exposures are required to capture the full range of data. Strong signals are saturated (shown in blue). RESULT: Multiple exposures are not required, because all exposure times yield consistent results. All data are captured in a single exposure without saturation.

In the figure above, film was compared with a conventional, commercially-available CCD imager (Imager B), and the Odyssey Fc imager. To eliminate variability introduced by blotting and chemiluminescent detection chemistry, a Harta luminometer reference plate (standardized light source) was used in place of a Western blot.

The Odyssey Fc imager outperformed both film and Imager B. All signals, from faintest to strongest, were detected – regardless of exposure time in a single exposure. No signal saturation occurred and all signals could be quantified. With film and Imager B, however, longer exposures are needed to detect faint signals. In addition, stronger signals become saturated and cannot be quantified.

Choosing the Odyssey Fc Imaging System as your imaging method reduces variability and error in chemiluminescent Western blotting by giving you:

  • All your data in a single exposure
  • More reproducible results
  • Simplified data analysis

Read the full study to learn:

  • How chemiluminescence detection introduces variability and error
  • How you can improve the reproducibility of your Western blot data

Film and CCD Imaging of Western Blots: Exposure Time, Signal Saturation, and Linear Dynamic Range