Are You Experiencing Detection System Saturation?

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An effective loading control will display a linear relationship between signal intensity and sample concentration. Saturation can often prevent this linear response, especially for highly abundant proteins. A quick recap: saturation is when strong band intensities appear different, but relative signal intensity plateaus. Check out a previous blog post on how saturation limits accurate Western blot normalization.

Linear range is the region over which signals are directly proportional to the amount of protein present. A wider dynamic range makes it easier to get data within the linear range today, as well as next year – increasing reproducibility.

Film Exposure of Chemiluminescent Blots

While film might be the method of choice for some researchers, it has fundamental limitations that affect the analysis and reproducibility of your data. It provides an extremely narrow linear range of detection, roughly 4-10 fold. Also, rapid saturation of strong signals makes it difficult to accurately determine the upper limit of detection. Film exaggerates small differences in abundance and masks sample-to-sample changes in strong bands.

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Figure 1. Odyssey® data are linear across a much wider range than ECL and film. Pure recombinant p53, Hdm2, and Hdmx protein of known concentration were serially diluted and run in duplicate, followed by Western blot analysis. Proteins were detected by IR fluorescence or standard ECL. Signal intensities were quantified with Odyssey software or, for ECL, densitometry of developed films. Reprinted from Wang, YV et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 104(30): 12365-70 (2007). Copyright (2007) National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.

CCD Imaging of Chemiluminescent Blots

Digital imaging of chemiluminescent blots typically offers a wider linear range of detection than film. Many CCD systems are able to detect faint signals without saturating strong signals. Sensitivity and linear range depend on which CCD system you choose.

Even with a digital imager, chemiluminescent Western blot signals are still the result of an enzymatic reaction. The time-dependent enzymatic reaction may still lead to saturation and inaccurate results.

Digital Imaging of Fluorescent Blots

Fluorescent immunoblotting is best performed with near-infrared fluorescent dyes and imaging systems. Background autofluorescence of membranes and biological samples is low in the near-infrared region, enabling high sensitivity. To detect faint signals without saturating strong signals, use an imaging system with a wide linear dynamic range.

Are you experiencing detection system saturation? Find more information about saturation in this full review article:
Western Blot Normalization: Challenges and Considerations for Quantitative Analysis

Saturation Limits Accurate Western Blot Normalization

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


An effective loading control has a linear, proportional response, meaning the signal intensity of the internal control should accurately reflect sample concentration and abundance of loading control over a wide range. If your loading control doesn’t meet the requirement of a linear response, it affects your accuracy and reproducibility.

Saturation limits the accuracy of normalization, especially if you’re using a housekeeping protein. Housekeeping proteins are often highly abundant in samples, which can lead to strong, saturated signals.

Let’s look at what saturation is and where it can happen.

What is Saturation?

Saturation is when strong signals don’t accurately reflect protein levels. It can come from your membrane, your detection chemistry, and the way you image your blot.

Saturated bands are deceptive (Fig. 1). They hide actual variation in protein levels and underestimate the amount of protein present. The similar apparent intensities of saturated bands may lead you to think your protein levels are equal.
Blog Post 4 - Normalization
Figure 1. Strong bands become saturated and underestimate protein abundance. Strong signals (box) exhibit saturation because they fall outside the linear range of detection. Band intensity can no longer increase proportionately to indicate protein abundance. As a result, the signal intensity of the saturated bands appears similar. High-intensity data points should not be used as controls for normalization.

Membrane Saturation

If you’ve overloaded the samples on your gel, that problem doesn’t go away once you transfer to the membrane. You may lose protein while transferring to the membrane, if overloaded samples exceed membrane capacity.

In addition, highly abundant proteins might stack on top of each other. When primary antibodies can only access the top layer of the protein stack, they can’t detect the rest of the proteins. This leads to underestimation of strong signals, hurting accurate quantitation.

How can you prevent membrane overloading? It’s best to run a dilution series to determine the upper limit of how much sample you should be loading on your gel. Membrane overloading is tricky to avoid, because different proteins generally have different upper limits in the same sample. Because it arises from the binding chemistry of proteins and blotting membranes, membrane saturation can happen with any detection chemistry or imaging method.

Detection Chemistry Saturation

When internal loading control bands are detected outside the linear range of detection, increases in protein level won’t produce a proportional increase in signal intensity. For accurate normalization, both the internal loading control and the target must be detected within the linear range of the method used. The type of detection chemistry you use affects the linear range of detection for your sample proteins.

Enhanced chemiluminescence (ECL) is an indirect, enzymatic method. Secondary antibodies are labeled with horseradish peroxidase (HRP) as an enzymatic reporter. The enzyme produces light after you apply substrate and produces an unstable, time-dependent signal. Because these signals are the result of the kinetics of an enzymatic reaction, the signal doesn’t reflect its protein abundance. Saturation is likely with ECL, because it amplifies signals.

Fluorescence, on the other hand, is direct detection. Fluorophores label secondary antibodies and then generate stable signals. This type of detection chemistry doesn’t depend on enzyme kinetics, so fluorescent detection is more reproducible than ECL detection. Fluorescence is also less likely to saturate, because the signals are directly proportional to the amount of protein.

How can you prevent detection chemistry saturation? The simplest way is to use fluorescence detection instead of ECL, because fluorescence is less likely to saturate.

Blog post 4 - direct-indirect