Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Free Radic Biol Med. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 September 15.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2759107

Methods for the determination and quantification of the reactive thiol proteome


Protein thiol modifications occur under both physiological and pathological conditions and have been shown to contribute to changes in protein structure, function, and redox signaling. The majority of protein thiol modifications occur on cysteine residues that have a low pKa; these nucleophilic proteins comprise the “reactive thiol proteome.” The most reactive members of this proteome are typically low abundance proteins. Therefore, sensitive and quantitative methods are needed to detect and measure thiol modifications in biological samples. To accomplish this, we have standardized the usage of biotinylated and fluorophore-labeled alkylating agents, such as biotinylated iodoacetamide (BIAM), N-ethylmaleimide (Bt-NEM), and BODIPY-labeled IAM and NEM, for use in one- and two-dimensional proteomic strategies. Purified fractions of cytochrome c and glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase were conjugated to a known amount of biotin or BODIPY fluorophore to create an external standard that can be run on standard SDS-PAGE gels, which allows for the quantification of protein thiols from biological samples by Western blotting or fluorescence imaging. A detailed protocol is provided for using thiol-reactive probes and making external standards for visualizing and measuring protein thiol modifications in biological samples.

Keywords: protein thiol, oxidative stress, iodoacetamide, N-ethylmaleimide, redox signaling


Cysteinyl protein thiols play crucial roles in enzyme catalysis, protein structure, maintenance of the cellular redox potential, and cell signaling [1]. The properties that make cysteine ideal for these redox-based reactions, however, also make them exceptionally vulnerable to oxidation by reactive oxygen or nitrogen species (ROS/RNS) or to modification by environmental or endogenous electrophiles [1, 2]. The average pKa of the cysteine residue thiol is ~8.5, which at cytosolic physiological pH, is less likely to react with ROS/RNS or electrophiles. However, many proteins have domains which result in a substantial lowering of the pKa thiol group, such that they are predominantly in the reactive thiolate anion form at physiological pH. It is also important to note that the differences in the local intracellular environment (e.g., pH and hydrophobicity) will also impact protein thiol reactivity. For example, the intra-mitochondrial pH is typically more alkaline than the cytosol which will likely affect the composition of thiol reactive proteins [3, 4]. These proteins collectively make up the “reactive thiol proteome.”

Several methods have been used to detect and measure thiol modifications. These include direct detection techniques for individual modifications (e.g., protein modifications induced by nitric oxide, glutathione, or electrophilic lipids) and strategies for the detection and quantification of overall cellular thiol modification [1, 2]. Detection of specific thiol modifications utilizes either antibody-based detection approaches or chemical approaches that facilitate tagging of the modified thiol group, whereas detection of the reactive thiol proteome is predominantly based on tagging methodologies that employ thiol-reactive probes. Both of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage of probing for individual modifications is that specific modifications can be monitored and associated with pathological or physiological mechanisms; however, the drawback with such an approach is that other modifications to the thiol proteome which may occur simultaneously may be overlooked. In this respect, the development of external standards is particularly important since it allows for the quantification of protein thiol modifications. This information can be valuable in assessing the biological impact of a modification. For example, if only one protein molecule in 100 molecules is modified, then it is unlikely that this modification will have a significant biological impact. Tagging the unmodified or reduced thiol pool allows for a broad view of the redox state of the cell or tissue and can be used to identify oxidatively modified proteins. However, this approach does not distinguish thiols which are specifically S-nitrosated, S-glutathiolated, oxidized, or modified by electrophilic lipids. Several excellent reviews and articles on the detection of specific modifications and approaches for tagging the unmodified protein thiol pool are available [1, 2, 510]. The purpose of this article is to provide a detailed protocol for the detection and quantification of the reactive thiol proteome using biotin- and fluorescence-based proteomic approaches.


Alkylation of free thiols and detection of alkylated proteins is an effective strategy for evaluating the reactive thiol proteome. N-ethylmaleimide (NEM), iodoacetamide (IAM), and iodoacetic acid (IAA) are commonly used for protein thiol alkylation. Additionally, radiolabeled, biotin-conjugated, and fluorophore-labeled forms of these and similar compounds are commercially available. Nevertheless, the decision of which compound to use experimentally should be based on the suitability of the thiol alkylation chemistry and the detection method employed. Moreover, the usage of IAA may or may not be desirable for proteomic strategies (depending on the experimental question being addressed) because it carries with it a negative charge that may shift the isoelectric point of labeled proteins.

The underlying chemistries of sulfhydryl modification by thiol alkylating agents are distinct and confer differences in their reactions with proteins. IAM and IAA yield carbamidomethylated and carboxymethylated cysteines, respectively, by bimolecular nucleophilic substitution (SN2) reactions [11, 12]. The lone pair of electrons in the deprotonated thiol (thiolate anion; S) act as the nucleophile and attack the electron deficient electrophilic center of IAM/IAA expelling iodine anion as the leaving group (Fig. 1A). This reaction is second order, with the rate of reaction depending on the nucleophile concentration (S), the concentration of the substrate itself (IAA/IAM), and the pH and proticity of the solvent. The reaction of NEM with thiols is based on a Michael-type addition reaction [11], where the thiolate anion attacks the electrophilic center of the C=C bond of the maleimide group to form a thioether bond between the thiol and the maleimide (Fig. 1B). The reaction of NEM with thiols is faster than IAM or IAA and less dependent on pH [11, 12]. However, NEM may be less specific than iodo derivatives; at alkaline pH, NEM also reacts with the side chains of lysine and histidine [2]. The comparative effectiveness of protein thiol alkylation between NEM, IAM, and IAA was demonstrated in a study by Rogers et al. [12].

Fig. 1
Reaction of labeled protein alkylating agents with protein cysteinyl residues

Biotin-based tagging techniques have been used to monitor intracellular thiol status of proteins after exposure to ROS/RNS or electrophilic compounds [10, 1317]. To assess protein thiol modification in general, thiols can be labeled directly with biotin-tagged reagents such as biotinylated IAM (BIAM) or biotinylated NEM (Bt-NEM), and the biotin signal can subsequently be measured by standard immunoblotting-type protocols using streptavidin-conjugated horseradish peroxidase (HRP). In this case, the loss of the biotin signal is proportional to the degree of thiol modification. To quantify protein thiol content, we have developed biotinylated standard proteins containing known amounts of biotin per mole of protein [10].

The major advantages of this biotin-thiol tagging technique include: 1) the extremely high affinity of avidin and streptavidin for biotin (Kd ≈ 10−15 M) [18, 19]; 2) the binding of streptavidin, which unlike an antibody, is not readily affected by flanking residues at the site of protein modification; 3) affinity resins are available for purification of the biotinylated proteins; and 4) the biotin tag can be easily and accurately quantified using biotinylated standards. Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks to using biotin as a tag which must also be considered. For example, in contrast to antibody-based methods, the high affinity of streptavidin for biotin results in an association which is practically (though not formally) irreversible. The technical implications are that Western blots using enzyme-conjugated avidin/streptavidin as a means of detection cannot be stripped after development. In addition, some proteins such as carboxylases have biotin covalently attached as an enzymatic cofactor, and these proteins can give false positive results that must be accounted for during data interpretation and quantification. Lastly, the conditions for transfer of the proteins from the SDS-PAGE gel to PVDF or nitrocellulose membranes must be standardized to ensure that all of the protein is transferred. In many cases, proteins are not thoroughly transferred from the gel, and proteins of different molecular weights tend to transfer at different rates. This could lead to inaccurate estimates of the amount of biotin incorporated based on the initial protein loaded for SDS-PAGE.

Fluorophore-tagged alkylating agents are also an option for use in the assessment of the reactive thiol proteome [9, 20]. A major advantage to using fluorophore-tagged alkylating agents is that the transfer step can be omitted since Western blotting is not required. After alkylation and separation by one-dimensional (1D) SDS-PAGE or by 2D proteomics techniques, the level of alkylation can be measured in-gel using detection techniques based on the emission/excitation characteristics of the particular fluorophore. False positives that occur with biotin tagging techniques (due to endogenous biotin-containing enzymes) are also circumvented using fluorescence-based tagging techniques. Generally, fluorescent-based approaches such as these are highly sensitive and have a large dynamic range. However, one disadvantage is that some fluorophores are light sensitive, and consequently, much of the work must be done under low light conditions. Also, unless an antibody exists to the fluorophore itself, pull-down assays cannot be performed using fluorophore-labeled compounds. In this methods article, we also describe a BODIPY-labeled standard that can be used for quantifying the reactive thiol proteome.


  • N-(biotinoyl)-N′-(iodoacetyl)-ethylenediamine (BIAM)
    • Invitrogen (Carlsbad, CA), Product #B1591
  • Maleimide-PEO2-biotin (Bt-NEM)
    • Thermo Scientific (Rockford, IL), Product #21902
  • N-(4,4-difluoro-5,7-dimethyl-4-bora-3a,4a-diaza-s-indacene-3-yl)methyl iodoacetamide (BODIPY®-IAM)
    • Invitrogen (Carlsbad, CA), Product #D6003
  • BODIPY® FL N-(2-aminoethyl)maleimide (BODIPY-NEM)
    • Invitrogen (Carlsbad, CA), Product #B10250
  • BODIPY® FL, SSE (sulfosuccinimidyl ester)
    • Invitrogen (Carlsbad, CA), Product #D6140
  • Complete Mini Protease Inhibitor Cocktail
    • Roche Applied Science (Indianapolis, IN), Product#11 836 153 001
  • 1-ethyl-1H-pyrrole-2,5-dione (N-ethylmaleimide; NEM)
    • Fisher Scientific (Pittsburgh, PA), Product #O2829-25
  • 2-mercaptoethanol (βME)
    • Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO), Product #M7154
  • Lowry DC Protein Assay Kit
    • Bio-Rad Laboratories (Hercules, CA), Product #500-0116
  • SuperSignal West Chemiluminescent Substrate
    • Pierce Biotechnology (Rockford, IL), Product #34077
  • ECL Plus Western Blotting Detection Reagents
    • GE Healthcare (Piscataway, NJ), Product #RPN2132
  • Hybond Low Fluorescence PVDF Membrane
    • GE Healthcare (Piscataway, NJ), Product #RPN303LFP
  • Biological Samples such as whole homogenate tissue fractions, isolated mitochondria, etc.
  • Labeling Buffers
    • - Low pH buffer (pH 6.5): 50 mM 2-(N-morpholino)ethanesulfonic acid (MES), pH 6.5, containing 1% Triton X-100 (v/v), and 100 mM NaCl. Add one tablet Complete Mini protease inhibitor cocktail to 10 ml of buffer immediately before using. Note: omit NaCl if samples will be used for isoelectric focusing.
    • - High pH buffer (pH 8.5): 10 mM Tris-HCl, pH 8.5, containing 1% Triton X-100 (v/v), and 100 mM NaCl. Add one tablet Complete Mini protease inhibitor cocktail to 10 ml of buffer immediately before using. Note: omit NaCl if samples will be used for isoelectric focusing.
    • - Neutral pH buffer (pH 7.0): 25 mM HEPES, 100 mM NaCl, 1% NP-40 (v/v), 0.1% SDS, and 1 mM EDTA. Add one tablet Complete Mini protease inhibitor cocktail to 10 ml of buffer immediately before using. Note: omit NaCl and SDS if using for isoelectric focusing.
  • Horse heart cytochrome c
    • Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO), Product #C2867
  • Glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase from rabbit muscle
    • Sigma (St. Louis, MO) Product #068K7405
  • Sulfo-NHS-LC-biotin
    • Pierce Biotechnology (Rockford, IL), Product # 127062-22-0
  • PD-10 gel filtration column
    • GE Healthcare (Piscataway, NJ), Product # 17–0851-01
  • Slide-A-Lyzer® 10K, Dialysis cassette, 10,000MW
    • Pierce (Rockford, IL) Product #66425
  • Zeba Desalt Spin Columns
    • Thermo Scientific (Rockford, IL) Product #89889
  • 2-(4′-hydroxyazobenzene) benzoic acid (HABA) reagent
    • Pierce Biotechnology (Rockford, IL), Product #28010
  • ImmunoPure Avidin
    • Pierce Biotechnology (Rockford, IL), Product #21121
  • Sodium dithionite
    • Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO), Product #28–2925
  • Sypro Ruby protein gel stain
    • Invitrogen (Eugene, OR), Product #S12000.
  • Streptavidin, horseradish peroxidase conjugated (Streptavidin-HRP)
    • GE Healthcare (Pittsburgh, PA), Product #RPN1231
  • Blotting grade milk
    • Bio-Rad Laboratories (Hercules, CA), Product # 170–6404
  • Tris-buffered saline containing 0.05–0.1% Tween-20 (TBS-T). Phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) can be used interchangeably with TBS.


  • uv/vis Spectrophotometer
  • Mini-Protean Electrophoresis System, Biorad (Hercules, CA)
  • Protean Isoelectric Focusing Cell with accompanying materials and reagents, Bio-Rad (Hercules, CA)
  • CCD camera imaging system such as the FluorChem 8000 (for chemiluminescent imaging; AlphaInnotech, San Leandro, CA) or a Typhoon Variable Mode Imager (model 9400 or Trio for both fluorescent and chemifluorescent imaging; GE Healthcare, Pittsburgh, PA).


A. Preparation and calibration of biotinylated cytochrome c

We have standardized the conjugation of biotin to cytochrome c for quantifying biotin in Western blotting procedures [10]. This conjugation reaction utilizes an amine-reactive succinimidyl ester that will react with lysine residues to form a stable amide bond.

  1. Prepare a stock solution of horse heart cytochrome c (cyt c; M.W. 12.4 kDa) by dissolving 10 mg in 1 ml phosphate buffered saline (PBS). In addition to cyt c, proteins of various molecular weights including horse heart myoglobin (Mb; M.W. 17 kDa) and soybean trypsin inhibitor (SBTI, M.W. 21.5 kDa) can be coupled with biotin as described for cyt c. Bovine serum albumin is not recommended, because the quantitative relationship between biotin content and fluorescent signal is not consistent (unpublished observations). This is likely due to direct interaction of HABA, which is used to quantify protein biotinylation, with albumin [21].
  2. Prepare the biotin derivatizing reagent—Sulfo-NHS-LC-biotin—by dissolving 5.5 mg biotin reagent in 1 ml PBS.
  3. Combine 1 ml protein solution (10 mg cyt c/ml PBS) and 1 ml biotin solution (5.5 mg/ml). Allow reaction to proceed for 4 h on ice. In our experience, the optimal molar ratio of biotin:protein is 10:1, which in the case of cyt c resulted in the addition of ~4.6 mol biotin per mol protein.
  4. Remove unreacted biotin by gel filtration using a PD-10 column. The column should be pre-equilibrated with 25 ml PBS. Allow the PBS to drain to the level of the column bed, add the biotinylated protein solution (maximum volume = 2 ml), and again allow solution to drain to the level of the column bed. Add 30 ml of PBS into the column to elute the protein sample. Note: with cyt c and other colored proteins, the protein can be monitored visually as it passes through the column. As the band elutes from the column, begin collecting 1 ml fractions. For uncolored proteins, collect 30–40 0.5 ml fractions (4–5 drops) and screen for protein in each fraction by spectrophotometry at 280 nm or protein assay. In order to minimize free biotin contamination, collect the first 1–3 tubes from the first peak which contains protein.
  5. Determine cyt c concentration and biotin incorporation as described below.

B. Measurement of protein concentration

The cyt c concentration is most accurately measured using the spectral properties of the covalently bound heme prosthetic group in its reduced state. For other proteins, we use the Lowry protein assay method to determine protein concentration [22]. The amount of biotin (moles) for a given amount of protein (moles) can be calculated from the concentrations of biotin (determined below by the HABA assay) and protein. We have also confirmed these calculations with detailed mass spectrometric analysis [10].

  1. Add 1 ml of PBS to a cuvette and blank the spectrophotometer using a wavelength scan from 500–600 nm.
  2. Add a measured aliquot of biotinylated cyt c into the PBS solution and add trace sodium dithionite (typically, a few grains of fresh powder) to reduce the heme group. Measure the absorbance using a wavelength scan from 500–600 nm. As shown in Fig. 2A, cyt c maximally absorbs at 550 nm. Calculate the biotinylated cyt c concentration taking into account the dilution factor of the measured aliquot using the absorbance at 550 nm with an extinction coefficient of 27,600 M−1 cm−1.
    Fig. 2
    Measurement of biotin incorporation into cytochrome c

C. Determination of biotin incorporation in standard proteins (HABA assay)

Biotin incorporation is determined using a colorimetric HABA dye displacement assay. In this assay, the colored dye HABA reversibly binds avidin and is displaced by biotin, resulting in a decrease in the absorbance of HABA at 500 nm [23].

  1. Prepare a stock solution of HABA by dissolving 24.2 mg of HABA in 10 ml of 20 mM NaOH (10 mM final HABA concentration). This solution may be stored at 4°C for several weeks.
  2. Prepare stock solution of avidin by dissolving 10 mg ImmunoPureAvidin in 19.4 ml of PBS.
  3. Add 0.6 ml of 10 mM HABA stock solution to solution from step 2 above to make HABA-avidin solution.
  4. Combine 0.5 ml HABA-avidin solution with 0.5 ml of PBS in a 1 ml cuvette and blank the spectrophotometer with this solution using a wavelength scan from 300 nm to 700 nm. Add the biotinylated cyt c into the blanked HABA-avidin solution and measure absorbance again as described above. As shown in Fig. 2B, increasing the amount of biotinylated protein results in dissociation of HABA from avidin, resulting in a decrease in absorbance at 500 nm.

We have observed that the linear range of this assay, where an increase in biotin is represented by a proportional decrease in absorbance, is somewhat narrow [10]. Therefore, it is necessary to repeat measurements using varying amounts of biotinylated protein, usually 1–20 μg. At this point, the absorbance at 500 nm may be plotted as a function of the protein amount added (in μg). In the linear range of the plot, quantitate the biotin incorporation in solution according to the extinction coefficient 34,000 M−1cm−1. In the case of colored proteins, it may be necessary to correct for the absorbance of the protein itself by preparing a solution of protein in PBS which does not contain HABA-avidin. This absorbance should be subtracted from that of the HABA-avidin solution containing the protein.

D. Preparation of BODIPY-labeled glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (BD-GAPDH) standard

We have also standardized the conjugation and usage of BODIPY for the quantification of protein thiols using BODIPY-IAM. Similar to biotinylated cyt c, the BODIPY conjugation reaction utilizes an amine-reactive succinimidyl ester that will react with lysine residues to form a stable amide bond.

  1. Make a 2 mg/ml stock of glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH; M.W. 37 kDa) in PBS (pH 7.4).
  2. Make a ~30 mM stock solution of BODIPY-FL-SSE in DMSO based on the formula weight. Determine the actual concentration of the BODIPY-FL-SSE spectrophotometrically. To do this, make a 1:9 dilution of the stock BODIPY-FL-SSE in DMSO. Then, add 999 μl of methanol to a quartz cuvette and blank the instrument. Add 1 μl of the 1:9 BODIPY-FL-SSE stock to the cuvette, mix by gentle pipetting, and perform a wavelength scan from 250–700 nm. As shown in Fig. 3A, BODIPY absorbance is maximal at 502 nm.
    Fig. 3
    Measurement and fluorescence characteristics of BODIPY-labeled glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (BD-GAPDH)
  3. Calculate the stock concentration of BODIPY-FL-SSE using ε = 76,000 M−1cm−1, accounting for both dilutions (e.g., 10000× dilution).
  4. Add 54 nmoles of BODIPY-FL-SSE to 1 ml of the 2 mg/ml (54 μM) GAPDH solution. This will give a 1:1 molar ratio of BODIPY-FL-SSE:GAPDH.
  5. Incubate the mixture for 4 h on ice.
  6. Dialyze the reaction mixture against 500 ml PBS, pH 7.4, in a 10,000 MW-cutoff dialysis cassette for 1 h at 4°C. Change the buffer and dialyze again overnight. Change the dialysis buffer once more the following morning and dialyze further for 1 h.
  7. Run the dialyzed sample through a Zeba desalting column at 1000×g for 2 min.
  8. Analyze the BD-GAPDH spectrophotometrically in a quartz cuvette. Set the wavelength scan to 250–700 nm. Blank the instrument against PBS and add the BD-GAPDH to the cuvette. As shown in Fig. 3B, there is a slight red shift in the BODIPY absorbance spectrum; the maximal absorbance of BD-GAPDH occurs at 506 nm. Calculate the BD concentration using ε= 76,000 M−1cm−1, accounting for dilution into the cuvette.
  9. Determine the protein concentration of the BD-GAPDH by the Lowry method. A rough estimate is given by the absorbance at 280 nm, shown in the wavelength scan in Fig. 3B.
  10. Calculate the moles of BODIPY per mg protein by dividing the concentration of BODIPY in the prepared sample by the protein concentration (from steps 8 and 9 above.)
  11. To prepare the standard for SDS-PAGE, add the BD-GAPDH to standard SDS-PAGE loading buffer containing 5% β-mercaptoethanol or 30 mM dithiothreitol. BD-GAPDH is best resolved on 10–12% SDS polyacrylamide gels. As shown in Fig. 3C, the BODIPY standard typically has a dynamic range of ~10 fmoles–100 pmoles.

Note: Bromophenol blue can quench fluorescence of BODIPY. It is advised that dyes are omitted from the SDS sample loading buffer in this protocol. A 5× bromophenol blue-free loading buffer can be prepared using 62.5 mM Tris, pH 6.8, containing 8% SDS and 30% glycerol.

E. “Snap-shot” labeling of free protein thiols in biological samples using BIAM, Bt-NEM, BODIPY-IAM, or BODIPY-NEM

The BIAM- or BODIPY-labeled alkylating agents can be used at the time of cell lysis or tissue homogenization to evaluate the thiol redox state. This gives a “snap-shot” of thiol status at one point in time. Below is a general protocol for snap-shot thiol labeling:

  1. Biological samples should be prepared in either the high pH, low pH, or neutral pH buffers shown above and centrifuged to remove cell and tissue debris. The protein concentration should be at least 1 mg/ml. The neutral pH buffer is a convenient buffer to use because it is similar to standard RIPA buffer that is used for immunoprecipitation (IP) and is compatible with most standard immunoprecipitation protocols. Note that there will likely be more extensive labeling with this buffer versus the low pH (pH 6.5) buffer. After lysis or homogenization, keep the samples on ice until step 6.
  2. Measure the protein concentration in the biological samples using the Lowry DC assay or another assay that is compatible with the levels of detergent found in the labeling buffers.
  3. Normalize each sample to 1–5 mg/ml protein concentration by using the appropriate labeling buffer as the diluent. Because the reaction of IAM with thiols is a bimolecular reaction [i.e., the reaction rate is dependent on both reactant (IAM) and substrate (S)], it is important that all samples be of equal protein concentrations.
  4. Prepare a 500 mM stock solution of β-mercaptoethanol in water. The concentration of undiluted β-mercaptoethanol is 14.3 M. This will be used to stop the alkylation reaction with protein thiols. Alternatively, excess unlabeled NEM can be used to block remaining thiols if reducing agents are not desired. For this, make a 100 mM stock of unlabeled NEM in labeling buffer. Keep on ice until use.
  5. Prepare 10 mM stocks of BIAM, Bt-NEM, BODIPY-IAM, or BODIPY-NEM by dissolving in dimethylformamide (DMF) or dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO). These solutions should be prepared immediately before use, protected from light, and kept at room temperature.
  6. Add 1 μl of BIAM, Bt-NEM, BODIPY-IAM, or BODIPY-NEM alkylating agents to 200 μl of sample homogenate or lysate. The final concentration of labeled alkylating agent will be 50 μM. If more or less labeling is desired, the amount of stock alkylating agent added to the sample can be adjusted to make a 25–250 μM final concentration. However, in our experience 50 μM provides adequate labeling.
  7. Incubate the samples for 30 min in the dark at room temperature.
  8. Stop the reaction by adding 10 μl of 500 mM β-mercaptoethanol to each sample (final concentration = ~20 mM). Alternatively, add 50 μl of 100 mM unlabeled NEM to the samples (final concentration = 20 mM) to block the remaining reduced thiols. Vortex the samples and place on ice. Note the changes in protein concentration due to addition of the reagents in steps 6 and 8.
  9. Load 5–20 μg of protein per well and include preferably three concentrations of biotinylated cyt c or BD-GAPDH (e.g., 1, 5, and 20 pmoles biotin or BODIPY in additional wells of the gel). After electrophoresis, analyze protein labeling by densitometry (see section G.4 for details). If using BODIPY-labeled IAM or NEM, do not remove the gel from the glass plates after electrophoresis. The image can be conveniently developed with the gel in the glass plates on a Typhoon Imager (see section F.2. for imaging details). After imaging, the gel can be stained (e.g., Coomassie or Sypro Ruby stain) or proteins in the gel can be transferred to PVDF or nitrocellulose membranes for other blotting applications. For detection of the biotin label, transfer the proteins to PVDF or nitrocellulose membranes and probe with streptavidin-HRP.

As shown in Fig. 4A–C, BIAM will alkylate fewer thiols than Bt-NEM under these conditions. This is due to the more reactive nature of maleimide compared to iodoacetamide. If probing the “reactive thiol proteome” it may be advisable to use BIAM. This will ensure that only the most reactive cysteines will be labeled, which could give more insight into the protein targets affected during conditions such as oxidative stress. The buffers used in these protocols are also compatible with 2D electrophoresis. As shown in Fig. 4D and E, BIAM-labeled proteins resolve well on IEF-SDS-PAGE gels.

Fig. 4
Differences in thiol labeling between BIAM and biotinylated N-ethylmaleimide (bt-NEM)

Note: Although fluorescent, chemiluminescent, and chemifluorescent techniques work well, the quality of the results will be dictated by the imaging system available and the level of alkylation achieved during the reaction. For the best possible results, the protocol should be optimized in each laboratory and with each imaging system. In our experience, the best resolution is achieved using BODIPY-labeled alkylating agents on a Typhoon imager; biotin-labeled alkylating agents also work well in chemifluorescent systems. Chemiluminescent systems work well, but may have less resolution than the above two methods. This is shown in Fig. 5, where identical samples were derivatized with BODIPY-IAM or BIAM; the images show greater resolution of samples derivatized with BODIPY-IAM and imaged by in-gel fluorescence compared to BIAM-derivatized gels imaged by chemiluminescent methods.

Fig. 5
Assessment of protein thiol modification using fluorophore-labeled iodoacetamide and biotinylated iodoacetamide (BIAM)

F. In situ thiol labeling of biological samples

We have found that BODIPY-IAM is also useful for labeling thiols in situ in cell culture. This would be more desirable when compared to “snap-shot” labeling if the experimenter wishes to understand how redox status changes temporally under a given set of conditions. An example of how this could be used in cell culture is shown in Fig. 6. Mesangial cells were treated with 0 or 1 mM diamide for 10 min. Cells were then treated with 50 μM BODIPY-IAM (added directly into the media) for 30 min, followed by cell lysis in buffer containing 1 mM DTT. As described in section E.8, excess alkylating agents such as NEM can be used instead of DTT to prevent further alkylation reactions from occurring after cell lysis. After cell harvest, proteins in the lysates were resolved by SDS-PAGE and imaged in-gel using a Typhoon Trio imager. As shown in Fig. 6A–C, cells treated with diamide were labeled less extensively (i.e., −5.1 ± 0.9 nmoles BODIPY/mg protein) than untreated cells, which is likely due to increased formation of protein-mixed disulfides. Since the ratio of reaction of iodoacetamide with thiols is 1:1, this suggests that the diamide treatment led to the oxidation of ~5 nmoles thiol/mg protein. When separated by 2D electrophoresis, diamide was shown to oxidize a large number of proteins (Fig. 6D and E), which could be identified by mass spectrometry.

Fig. 6
Quantitation of thiol modifications using BD-GAPDH

G. Notes on protein separation, blotting, and image analysis using thiol labeling agents

A key aspect to accurate quantitation of the biotin tag using Western blot analysis is the use of high resolution digital imaging techniques. The use of film is rarely optimal because the narrow linear range of chemiluminescence using film can result in image saturation. The dynamic range of digital camera imagers and fluorescent imagers (e.g., Typhoon imagers) have a wider dynamic range and are therefore recommended for Western blotting applications using biotin tags and/or in-gel fluorescent imaging.

1) Blotting protocol

Biotinylated protein samples are separated by 1D- or 2D-SDS-PAGE. To measure biotin content in experimental samples, biotinylated protein standards should be included on the gel. For 1D gels, a standard curve may be constructed by varying amounts of one biotinylated protein in a few lanes. For 2D gels, the biotinylated standard protein(s) can be run in a lane adjacent to the first dimension gel strip. Duplicate gels can be run so that proteins from one gel can be stained with Sypro Ruby or comparable protein stains and proteins from the other gel can be transferred to nitrocellulose or PVDF and blotted for biotin detection. To quantify moles biotin per mole protein, non-biotinylated protein can be mixed with biotinylated protein, so that the standard can be used to calibrate both stained gels and Western blots [10].

To blot proteins, transfer to nitrocellulose or PVDF membrane at 100 V for 2 h with cooling or at 25 V overnight at 4°C. If using a Typhoon imager in later steps (see below), a low fluorescence PVDF membrane such as Hybond-LFP should be used. Block nonspecific binding sites with 5% milk in TBS-T for 1 h. Wash membranes thoroughly to remove all milk. (Note: some milk blotting formulations contain biotin. Since this could interfere with streptavidin binding to biotinylated proteins, milk should not be included after the blocking step). Incubate blots with streptavidin-HRP (1:10,000 dilution in 10 ml TBS-T) for 1 h. Wash membranes 3 times for 10 min each. Add chemiluminescent substrate evenly to the blot, ensuring coverage of the entire surface. For chemifluorescent imaging of biotin incorporation, use ECL Plus substrate and incubate on the membrane for 5 min under dim-lighting conditions or in the dark.

2) In-gel fluorescent imaging

If using fluorophore-tagged alkylating agents (e.g., BODIPY-IAM or –NEM), the image may be acquired directly from the gel. However, it is very important to run the dye front completely off of the gel prior to imaging, because the unreacted alkylating agent can interfere with the image and result in poor image quality in the lower half of the gel. Prior to imaging, wash the outside of the glass plates containing the gel with 70% ethanol, followed by distilled water. It should be noted that standard glass plates often have intrinsic fluorescent properties that could affect image quality. In our experience, conventional glass plates do not show any background fluorescence on a Typhoon imager at the excitation and emission settings described below for the BODIPY FL fluorophore. However, if fluorophores other than BODIPY FL or multiple fluorophores with different spectral properties will be used, it is advisable to use low fluorescence glass plates. Scan using the proper wavelength and emission filter settings; the excitation maximum for BODIPY FL is 505 nm and the emission maximum is at 513 nm. Refer to the respective instrument manual for guidelines on emission and excitation settings.

3) Western blot imaging

For Western blotting applications, acquire a series of images using a CCD camera imager (AlphaInnotech), a fluorescent imager (Typhoon; Amersham Biosciences), or similar instrumentation. For chemiluminescent imaging, the substrate should be left on the membrane during imaging. Imaging can be performed using a “movie” function, which integrates serial exposures. The result is a “movie strip” containing images of increasing intensity. Images should be saved as TIFF format files, which are used for subsequent analyses. Images containing saturated pixels should not be used for quantitation purposes.

For chemifluorescent imaging, the membranes should be dried prior to imaging or placed in distilled water and imaged while wet. In our experience using a Typhoon Variable mode imager, less background is observed when the membrane is dried completely before imaging. The signal is stable for > 48 h after development using ECL Plus detection reagents. After exposure to ECL Plus, transfer the membrane to a stacked layer of Kimwipes and gently blot the membrane dry. Afterwards, place the membrane on a piece of filter paper and allow it to dry for at least 20 min prior to imaging. Failure to allow the blot to dry completely will result in uneven background and image artifacts. Lay the blot face-down on the Typhoon platen and overlay with a piece of non-fluorescent plastic such as 3M Dual Purpose transparency film. Scan image in the fluorescence acquisition mode using the 520 BP 40 emission filter and the blue (488 nm) laser (note: if using a Typhoon Trio imager, use the ECL + excitation setting). Set the PMT voltage to 400–450 V initially. Do not press the sample; the plastic transparency film will adequately press the membrane against the platen. Set the pixel size to 500–1000 μm initially. Adjust the PMT voltage to obtain an image that is intense but not saturated. Take the final image using a pixel size of 100 μm.

Acquire Sypro Ruby images using UV light if using a CCD camera imaging system or with Sypro Ruby filter settings and the appropriate laser conditions if using a Typhoon imager.

4) Analysis

The amount of biotin is quantitated by determining the density (in arbitrary units; AU) of the selected area with AlphaEaseFC software if using a CCD camera or the with ImageQuant TL software if using the Typhoon imager. Several alternative densitometry programs exist and can be used in a manner similar to those described here. For 1D gels, the densities of each lane containing experimental samples and biotinylated standard proteins are determined. Note that background subtraction settings are particularly important here, and, in our experience, the “minimum profile” setting is optimum for assessment of overall biotinylation or BODIPY signal from 1D membranes or gels.

Advantages and Caveats

Alkylating agents and quantitation

This protocol describes the use of alkylating agents for the detection of reactive protein thiols. Depending on the intent of the experiment or project, other types of probes may also be used to interrogate the thiol proteome. For instance, disulfide-forming probes or probes similar to those used in protein spin-labeling studies such as biotinylated glutathione, methyl methanethiosulfonate (MMTS), or N-(6-(biotinamido)hexyl)-3′-(2′-pyridyldithio)-propionamide (biotin HPDP) may be used alone or in concert to detect specific protein modifications [1, 2, 58, 24]. The advantage to using these probes is that particular reductants or derivatization reagents (e.g., ascorbate [24] or dimedone [25]) allow for detection and discrimination of specific reversible post-translational protein modifications such as S-nitrosated or sulfenic acid-modified proteins. The protocols described here, however, focus mainly on identifying the overall proteome that is modified. It should be noted that these protocols could easily be adapted and used jointly with other fluorophore-labeled probes and protocols to give further insight into and to quantify potentially important protein thiol modifications. For example, it is possible to extend this protocol to not only detect the overall thiol proteome that is modified but also to discern the proportion of those proteins that are S-nitrosated, -glutathiolated, or -oxidized.

The choice of alkylating reagent depends on the experimental intent and the imaging facilities available. IAM will alkylate many reduced protein thiols at high pH; alternatively, NEM can be used to alkylate for this purpose at neutral pH or below. To label thiols that are most highly reactive (i.e., those that have a low pKa), IAM should be used at neutral pH or below. These thiols, which make up the “reactive thiol proteome,” are of interest in most protein modification studies because of their potential involvement in redox signaling or their role in pathology due to modification during excessive oxidant stress. The caveat to using iodo derivatives is incomplete alkylation of the reactive thiol proteome. In studies by Rogers et al., NEM was shown to more fully alkylate thiols than eightfold higher concentrations of IAM or IAA [12]. Hence, the amount of thiols modified by IAM or IAA per mg protein will likely be an underestimation of the actual reactive thiol proteome. Because of this, measurement of thiols using this protocol is not absolute. Nevertheless, if all samples are treated equally, the measurements are quantitative and exceed more semi-quantitative measurements based only on assessing arbitrary or relative fluorescence units. The external standards used in this protocol are the primary advancement over previous methods. In our experience, the fluorescence standards have a much wider linear dynamic range and can be detected in femtomole quantities.


This study was supported by the UAB-UCSD O’Brien Core Center (NIH/NIDDK 1P30 DK 079337) and an American Heart Association (Scientist Development Grant to A. L.).


Conflicts of Interest



1. Eaton P. Protein thiol oxidation in health and disease: techniques for measuring disulfides and related modifications in complex protein mixtures. Free Radic Biol Med. 2006;40:1889–1899. [PubMed]
2. Ying J, Clavreul N, Sethuraman M, Adachi T, Cohen RA. Thiol oxidation in signaling and response to stress: detection and quantification of physiological and pathophysiological thiol modifications. Free Radic Biol Med. 2007;43:1099–1108. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
3. Llopis J, McCaffery JM, Miyawaki A, Farquhar MG, Tsien RY. Measurement of cytosolic, mitochondrial, and Golgi pH in single living cells with green fluorescent proteins. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998;95:6803–6808. [PubMed]
4. Porcelli AM, Ghelli A, Zanna C, Pinton P, Rizzuto R, Rugolo M. pH difference across the outer mitochondrial membrane measured with a green fluorescent protein mutant. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2005;326:799–804. [PubMed]
5. Brennan JP, Miller JI, Fuller W, Wait R, Begum S, Dunn MJ, Eaton P. The utility of N,N-biotinyl glutathione disulfide in the study of protein S-glutathiolation. Mol Cell Proteomics. 2006;5:215–225. [PubMed]
6. Gitler C, Zarmi B, Kalef E. General method to identify and enrich vicinal thiol proteins present in intact cells in the oxidized, disulfide state. Anal Biochem. 1997;252:48–55. [PubMed]
7. Forrester MT, Foster MW, Stamler JS. Assessment and application of the biotin switch technique for examining protein S-nitrosylation under conditions of pharmacologically induced oxidative stress. J Biol Chem. 2007;282:13977–13983. [PubMed]
8. Wright SK, Viola RE. Evaluation of methods for the quantitation of cysteines in proteins. Anal Biochem. 1998;265:8–14. [PubMed]
9. Baty JW, Hampton MB, Winterbourn CC. Detection of oxidant sensitive thiol proteins by fluorescence labeling and two-dimensional electrophoresis. Proteomics. 2002;2:1261–1266. [PubMed]
10. Landar A, Oh JY, Giles NM, Isom A, Kirk M, Barnes S, Darley-Usmar VM. A sensitive method for the quantitative measurement of protein thiol modification in response to oxidative stress. Free Radic Biol Med. 2006;40:459–468. [PubMed]
11. Wong HL, Liebler DC. Mitochondrial protein targets of thiol-reactive electrophiles. Chem Res Toxicol. 2008;21:796–804. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
12. Rogers LK, Leinweber BL, Smith CV. Detection of reversible protein thiol modifications in tissues. Anal Biochem. 2006;358:171–184. [PubMed]
13. Kim JR, Yoon HW, Kwon KS, Lee SR, Rhee SG. Identification of proteins containing cysteine residues that are sensitive to oxidation by hydrogen peroxide at neutral pH. Anal Biochem. 2000;283:214–221. [PubMed]
14. Hao G, Derakhshan B, Shi L, Campagne F, Gross SS. SNOSID, a proteomic method for identification of cysteine S-nitrosylation sites in complex protein mixtures. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006;103:1012–1017. [PubMed]
15. Eaton P, Jones ME, McGregor E, Dunn MJ, Leeds N, Byers HL, Leung KY, Ward MA, Pratt JR, Shattock MJ. Reversible cysteine-targeted oxidation of proteins during renal oxidative stress. J Am Soc Nephrol. 2003;14:S290–296. [PubMed]
16. Dennehy MK, Richards KA, Wernke GR, Shyr Y, Liebler DC. Cytosolic and nuclear protein targets of thiol-reactive electrophiles. Chem Res Toxicol. 2006;19:20–29. [PubMed]
17. Jaffrey SR, Snyder SH. The biotin switch method for the detection of S-nitrosylated proteins. Sci STKE. 2001;2001:PL1. [PubMed]
18. Green NM. Avidin and streptavidin. Methods Enzymol. 1990;184:51–67. [PubMed]
19. Green NM. Avidin. In: Anfinsen CB, Edsall JT, Richards FM, editors. Advances in Protein Chemistry. New York: Academic Press; 1975. pp. 85–133.
20. Gorman JJ. Fluorescent labeling of cysteinyl residues to facilitate electrophoretic isolation of proteins suitable for amino-terminal sequence analysis. Anal Biochem. 1987;160:376–387. [PubMed]
21. Rutstein DD, Ingenito EF, Reynolds WE. The determination of albumin in human blood plasma and serum; a method based on the interaction of albumin with an anionic dye-2(4′-hydroxybenzeneazo) benzoic acid. J Clin Invest. 1954;33:211–221. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
22. Lowry OH, Rosebrough NJ, Farr AL, Randall RJ. Protein measurement with the Folin phenol reagent. J Biol Chem. 1951;193:265–275. [PubMed]
23. Green NM. A Spectrophotometric Assay for Avidin and Biotin Based on Binding of Dyes by Avidin. Biochem J. 1965;94:23C–24C. [PubMed]
24. Jaffrey SR, Snyder SH. The biotin switch method for the detection of S-nitrosylated proteins. Sci STKE. 2001:L1, 2001. [PubMed]
25. Charles RL, Schroder E, May G, Free P, Gaffney PR, Wait R, Begum S, Heads RJ, Eaton P. Protein sulfenation as a redox sensor: proteomics studies using a novel biotinylated dimedone analogue. Mol Cell Proteomics. 2007;6:1473–1484. [PubMed]