Methods and Concepts in the Life Sciences/Chromatography


Chromatography is the collective term for a set of laboratory techniques for the separation of mixtures. The mixture is dissolved in a fluid called the mobile phase, which carries it through a structure holding another material called the stationary phase. The various constituents of the mixture travel at different speeds, causing them to separate. The separation is based on differential partitioning between the mobile and stationary phases. Subtle differences in a compound's partition coefficient result in differential retention on the stationary phase and thus changing the separation.

Chromatography may be preparative or analytical. The purpose of preparative chromatography is to separate the components of a mixture for more advanced use (and is thus a form of purification). Analytical chromatography is normally done with smaller amounts of material and is for measuring the relative proportions of analytes in a mixture. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Ion exchange chromatographyEdit

Ion exchange chromatography (usually referred to as ion chromatography) separates analytes based on their respective charges. It uses a charged stationary phase to separate charged compounds including anions, cations, amino acids, peptides, and proteins. In conventional methods the stationary phase is an ion exchange resin that carries charged functional groups that interact with oppositely charged groups of the compound to retain. Ion exchange chromatography is commonly used to purify proteins using FPLC.

Proteins have numerous functional groups that can have both positive and negative charges. Ion exchange chromatography separates proteins according to their net charge, which is dependent on the composition of the mobile phase. By adjusting the pH or the ionic concentration of the mobile phase, various protein molecules can be separated. For example, if a protein has a net positive charge at pH 7, then it will bind to a column of negatively charged beads, whereas a negatively charged protein would not. By changing the pH so that the net charge on the protein is negative, it too will be eluted.

Elution by increasing the ionic strength of the mobile phase is a more subtle effect - it works as ions from the mobile phase will interact with the immobilized ions in preference over those on the stationary phase. This "shields" the stationary phase from the protein, (and vice versa) and allows the protein to elute.

Separation can be achieved based on the natural isoelectric point of the protein. Alternatively a peptide tag can be genetically added to the protein to give the protein an isoelectric point away from most natural proteins (e.g. 6 arginines for binding to cation-exchange resin such as DEAE-Sepharose or 6 glutamates for binding to anion-exchange resin).

Size-exclusion chromatographyEdit

Size-exclusion chromatography (SEC) separates molecules according to their size (or more accurately according to their hydrodynamic diameter or hydrodynamic volume). Smaller molecules are able to enter the pores of the media and, therefore, molecules are trapped and removed from the flow of the mobile phase. The average residence time in the pores depends upon the effective size of the analyte molecules. However, molecules that are larger than the average pore size of the packing are excluded and thus suffer essentially no retention; such species are the first to be eluted. It is generally a low-resolution chromatography technique and thus it is often reserved for the final, "polishing" step of a purification. It is also useful for determining the tertiary structure and quaternary structure of purified proteins, especially since it can be carried out under native solution conditions.

Typically, when an aqueous solution is used to transport the sample through the column, the technique is known as gel-filtration chromatography, versus the name gel permeation chromatography, which is used when an organic solvent is used as a mobile phase.

The main application of gel-filtration chromatography is the fractionation of proteins and other water-soluble polymers, while gel permeation chromatography is used to analyze the molecular weight distribution of organic-soluble polymers. Either technique should not be confused with gel electrophoresis, where an electric field is used to "pull" or "push" molecules through the gel depending on their electrical charges.

A cartoon illustrating the theory behind size exclusion chromatography.

One requirement for SEC is that the analyte does not interact with the surface of the stationary phases, with differences in elution time between analytes ideally being based solely on the volume the analytes "see". Thus, a small molecule that can penetrate every region of the stationary phase pore system "sees" a total volume equal to the sum of the entire pore volume and the interparticle volume. This small molecule will elute late (when the pore- and interparticle volume has passed through the column ~80% of the column volume). On the other extreme, a very large molecule that cannot penetrate any region of the pore system "sees" only the interparticle volume (~35% of the column volume) and will elute earlier when this volume of mobile phase has passed through the column. The underlying principle of SEC is that particles of different sizes will elute (filter) through a stationary phase at different rates. This results in the separation of a solution of particles based on size. Provided that all the particles are loaded simultaneously or near-simultaneously, particles of the same size should elute together.

However, as there are various measures of the size of a macromolecule (for instance, the radius of gyration and the hydrodynamic radius), a fundamental problem in the theory of SEC has been the choice of a proper molecular size parameter by which molecules of different kinds are separated. Experimentally, Benoit and co-workers found an excellent correlation between elution volume and a dynamically based molecular size, the hydrodynamic volume, for several chain architecture and chemical compositions. The observed correlation based on the hydrodynamic volume became accepted as the basis of universal SEC calibration.

Each size exclusion column has a range of molecular weights that can be separated. The exclusion limit defines the molecular weight at the upper end of the column 'working' range and is where molecules are too large to be trapped in the stationary phase. The lower end of the range is defined by the permeation limit, which defines the molecular weight of a molecule that is small enough to penetrate all pores of the stationary phase. All molecules below this molecular mass are so small that they elute as a single band.

The filtered solution that is collected at the end is known as the eluate. The void volume includes any particles too large to enter the medium, and the solvent volume is known as the column volume.

Normal-phase chromatographyEdit

In normal-phase chromatography, the stationary phase is polar and the mobile phase is nonpolar. The least polar compounds elute first and the most polar compounds elute last. The mobile phase consists of a nonpolar solvent such as hexane or heptane mixed with a slightly more polar solvent such as isopropanol, ethyl acetate or chloroform. Retention increases as the amount of nonpolar solvent in the mobile phase increases.

Reversed-phase chromatographyEdit

Reversed-phase chromatography (also called RPC or hydrophobic chromatography) includes any chromatographic method that uses a hydrophobic stationary phase.

The term "reversed-phase" has a historical background. In the 1970s, most liquid chromatography was performed using a stationary phase containing unmodified silica or alumina resins. This method is now called "normal phase chromatography". In normal phase chromatography, the stationary phase is hydrophilic and therefore has a strong affinity for hydrophilic molecules in the mobile phase. The introduction of a technique using alkyl chains covalently bonded to the solid support created a hydrophobic stationary phase, which has a stronger affinity for hydrophobic compounds. The use of a hydrophobic stationary phase can be considered the opposite, or "reverse", of normal phase chromatography - hence the term "reversed-phase chromatography".

Reversed-phase chromatography employs a polar (aqueous) mobile phase. As a result, hydrophobic molecules in the polar mobile phase tend to adsorb to the hydrophobic stationary phase, and hydrophilic molecules in the mobile phase will pass through the column and are eluted first. Hydrophobic molecules can be eluted from the column by decreasing the polarity of the mobile phase using an organic (non-polar) solvent, which reduces hydrophobic interactions. The more hydrophobic the molecule, the more strongly it will bind to the stationary phase, and the higher the concentration of organic solvent that will be required to elute the molecule.

Affinity chromatographyEdit

Illustration of the binding step in affinity chromatography.

Affinity chromatography is based on selective non-covalent interaction between an analyte and specific molecules. It is very specific, but not very robust. It is often used in biochemistry in the purification of proteins bound to tags. These fusion proteins are labeled with compounds such as His-tags, biotin or antigens, which bind specifically to the stationary phase.

Affinity chromatography often utilizes a biomolecule's affinity for a metal (Zn, Cu, Fe, etc.). Columns are often manually prepared. Traditional affinity columns are used as a preparative step to flush out unwanted biomolecules.

Immobilized metal ion affinity chromatographyEdit

Immobilized metal ion affinity chromatography (IMAC) is based on the specific coordinate covalent bond of amino acids, particularly histidine, to metals. This technique works by allowing proteins with an affinity for metal ions to be retained in a column containing immobilized metal ions, such as cobalt, nickel, copper for the purification of histidine containing proteins or peptides, iron, zinc or gallium for the purification of phosphorylated proteins or peptides. Many naturally occurring proteins do not have an affinity for metal ions, therefore recombinant DNA technology can be used to introduce such a protein tag into the relevant gene. Methods used to elute the protein of interest include changing the pH, or adding a competitive molecule, such as imidazole.

Immunoaffinity chromatographyEdit

Another use for the procedure is the affinity purification of antibodies from blood serum. If serum is known to contain antibodies against a specific antigen (for example if the serum comes from an organism immunized against the antigen concerned) then it can be used for the affinity purification of that antigen. This is also known as Immunoaffinity Chromatography. For example, if an organism is immunised against a GST-fusion protein it will produce antibodies against the fusion-protein, and possibly antibodies against the GST tag as well. The protein can then be covalently coupled to a solid support such as agarose and used as an affinity ligand in purifications of antibody from immune serum.

For thoroughness the GST protein and the GST-fusion protein can each be coupled separately. The serum is initially allowed to bind to the GST affinity matrix. This will remove antibodies against the GST part of the fusion protein. The serum is then separated from the solid support and allowed to bind to the GST-fusion protein matrix. This allows any antibodies that recognize the antigen to be captured on the solid support. Elution of the antibodies of interest is most often achieved using a low pH buffer such as glycine pH 2.8. The eluate is collected into a neutral tris or phosphate buffer, to neutralize the low pH elution buffer and halt any degradation of the antibody's activity.

A simplified strategy is often employed to purify antibodies generated against peptide antigens. When the peptide antigens are produced synthetically, a terminal cysteine residue is added at either the N- or C-terminus of the peptide. This cysteine residue contains a sulfhydryl functional group which allows the peptide to be easily conjugated to a carrier protein (e.g.Keyhole Limpet Hemocyanin (KLH)). The same cysteine-containing peptide is also immobilized onto an agarose resin through the cysteine residue and is then used to purify the antibody.

Most monoclonal antibodies have been purified using affinity chromatography based on immunoglobulin-specific Protein A or Protein G, derived from bacteria.

Recombinant proteinsEdit

A chromatography column containing nickel-agarose beads used for purification of proteins with histidine tags.

Possibly the most common use of affinity chromatography is for the purification of recombinant proteins. Proteins with a known affinity are protein tagged in order to aid their purification. The protein may have been genetically modified to allow it to be selected for affinity binding; this is known as a fusion protein. Tags include glutathione-S-transferase (GST), hexahistidine (His), and maltose binding protein (MBP). Histidine tags have an affinity for nickel or cobalt ions which have been immobilized by forming coordinate covalent bonds with a chelator incorporated in the stationary phase. For elution, an excess amount of a compound able to act as a metal ion ligand, such as imidazole, is used. GST has an affinity for glutathione which is commercially available immobilized as glutathione agarose. During elution, excess glutathione is used to displace the tagged protein.

High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC)Edit

High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) relies on pumps to pass a pressurized liquid solvent containing the sample mixture through a column filled with a solid adsorbent material. HPLC is distinguished from traditional ("low pressure") liquid chromatography because operational pressures are significantly higher (50–350 bar), while ordinary liquid chromatography typically relies on the force of gravity to pass the mobile phase through the column. Due to the small sample amount separated in analytical HPLC, typical column dimensions are 2.1–4.6 mm diameter, and 30–250 mm length. Also, HPLC columns are made with smaller sorbent particles (2–50 micrometer in average particle size). This gives HPLC superior resolving power when separating mixtures, which is why it is a popular chromatographic technique.

Schematic representation of an HPLC unit. (1) Solvent reservoirs, (2) Solvent degasser, (3) Gradient valve, (4) Mixing vessel for delivery of the mobile phase, (5) High-pressure pump, (6) Switching valve in "inject position", (6') Switching valve in "load position", (7) Sample injection loop, (8) Pre-column (guard column), (9) Analytical column, (10) Detector (i.e. IR, UV), (11) Data acquisition, (12) Waste or fraction collector.

The schematic of an HPLC instrument typically includes a sampler, pumps, and a detector. The sampler brings the sample mixture into the mobile phase stream which carries it into the column. The pumps deliver the desired flow and composition of the mobile phase through the column. The detector generates a signal proportional to the amount of sample component emerging from the column, hence allowing for quantitative analysis of the sample components. A digital microprocessor and user software control the HPLC instrument and provide data analysis. Some models of mechanical pumps in a HPLC instrument can mix multiple solvents together in ratios changing in time, generating a composition gradient in the mobile phase. Various detectors are in common use, such as UV/Vis, photodiode array (PDA) or based on mass spectrometry. Most HPLC instruments also have a column oven that allows for adjusting the temperature the separation is performed at.