Gel electrophoresis is a technique used for the separation of deoxyribonucleic acid, ribonucleic acid, or protein molecules using an electric current applied to a gel matrix.
It is usually performed for analytical purposes, but may be used as a preparative technique prior to use of other methods such as mass spectrometry, RFLP, PCR, cloning, DNA sequencing, or Southern blotting for further characterization.
The term "gel" in this instance refers to the matrix used to contain, then separate the target molecules. In most cases the gel is a crosslinked polymer whose composition and porosity is chosen based on the specific weight and composition of the target to be analyzed. When separating proteins or small nucleic acids (DNA, RNA, or oligonucleotides) the gel is usually composed of different concentrations of acrylamide and a cross-linker, producing different sized mesh networks of polyacrylamide. When separating larger nucleic acids (greater than a few hundred bases), the preferred matrix is purified agarose.
In both cases, the gel forms a solid, yet porous matrix. Acrylamide, in contrast to polyacrylamide, is a neurotoxin and must be handled using Good Laboratory Practices to avoid poisoning.
"Electrophoresis" refers to the electromotive force (EMF) that is used to move the molecules through the gel matrix. By placing the molecules in wells in the gel and applying an electric current, the molecules will move through the matrix at different rates, usually determined by mass, toward the positive anode if negatively charged or toward the negative cathode if positively charged.
I Agarose gel prepared for DNA analysis - The first lane contains a DNA ladder for sizing, and the other four lanes show variously-sized DNA fragments that are present in some but not all of the samples.
After the electrophoresis is complete, the molecules in the gel can be stained to make them visible. Ethidium bromide, silver, or coomassie blue dye may be used for this process. Other methods may also be used to visualize the separation of the mixture's components on the gel. If the analyte molecules fluoresce under ultraviolet light, a photograph can be taken of the gel under ultraviolet lighting conditions. If the molecules to be separated contain radioactivity added for visibility, an autoradiogram can be recorded of the gel.
If several mixtures have initially been injected next to each other, they will run parallel in individual lanes. Depending on the number of different molecules, each lane shows separation of the components from the original mixture as one or more distinct bands, one band per component. Incomplete separation of the components can lead to overlapping bands, or to indistinguishable smears representing multiple unresolved components.
Bands in different lanes that end up at the same distance from the top contain molecules that passed through the gel with the same speed, which usually means they are approximately the same size. There are molecular weight size markers available that contain a mixture of molecules of known sizes. If such a marker was run on one lane in the gel parallel to the unknown samples, the bands observed can be compared to those of the unknown in order to determine their size. The distance a band travels is approximately inversely proportional to the logarithm of the size of the molecule.
Gel electrophoresis is used in forensics, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology and biochemistry. The results can be analyzed quantitatively by visualizing the gel with UV light and a gel imaging device. The image is recorded with a computer operated camera, and the intensity of the band or spot of interest is measured and compared against standard or markers loaded on the same gel. The measurement and analysis are mostly done with specialized software.
Depending on the type of analysis being performed, other techniques are often implemented in conjunction with the results of gel electrophoresis, providing a wide range of field-specific applications.
In the case of nucleic acids, the direction of migration, from negative to positive electrodes, is due to the naturally-occurring negative charge carried by their sugar-phosphate backbone.
Double-stranded DNA fragments naturally behave as long rods, so their migration through the gel is relative to their radius of gyration, or, for non-cyclic fragments, size. Single-stranded DNA or RNA tend to fold up into molecules with complex shapes and migrate through the gel in a complicated manner based on their tertiary structure. Therefore, agents that disrupt the hydrogen bonds, such as sodium hydroxide or formamide, are used to denature the nucleic acids and cause them to behave as long rods again.
Gel electrophoresis of large DNA or RNA is usually done by agarose gel electrophoresis. See the "Chain termination method" page for an example of a polyacrylamide DNA sequencing gel.
SDS-PAGE autoradiography - The indicated proteins are present in different concentrations in the two samples.
Proteins, unlike nucleic acids, can have varying charges and complex shapes, therefore they may not migrate into the gel at similar rates, or at all, when placing a negative to positive EMF on the sample. Proteins therefore, are usually denatured in the presence of a detergent such as sodium dodecyl sulfate/sodium dodecyl phosphate (SDS/SDP) that coats the proteins with a negative charge. Generally, the amount of SDS bound is relative to the size of the protein (usually 1.4g SDS per gram of protein), so that the resulting denatured proteins have an overall negative charge, and all the proteins have a similar charge to mass ratio. Since denatured proteins act like long rods instead of having a complex tertiary shape, the rate at which the resulting SDS coated proteins migrate in the gel is relative only to its size and not its charge or shape.
Proteins are usually analyzed by sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE), by native gel electrophoresis, by quantitative preparative native continuous polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (QPNC-PAGE), or by 2-D electrophoresis.