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Measuring Protein Concentration More Accurately

Image of blue cocktail to represent the blue dye used to when measuring protein concentration using the Bradford Assay

When working with proteins, one key part of any good assay is accurately determining how much protein you have by measuring protein concentration.

Why is Accurate Protein Quantification Important?

Measuring protein concentration accurately is critical if, for example, you’re trying to determine a binding constant or measure enzyme kinetics; but even if you’re doing something more qualitative, having a good idea of how much protein you have will enable you to compare results from one experiment to the next and from one protein to the next.

There are several ways to measure protein concentration, and each of them has its own advantages and disadvantages, so how do you know which method is right for your protein? In this article, we’re going to discuss three different methods for measuring protein concentration: absorbance at 280 nm, the Bradford assay, and the BCA assay.

3 Main Methods to Measure the Concentration of Proteins

1. Absorbance at 280 nm

How It Works

Aromatic residues, like tyrosine and tryptophan, absorb UV light at 280 nm. So, if you have an extinction coefficient for your protein (e), you can measure the absorbance in a UV/Vis spectrometer and calculate the concentration of your protein using the Beer–Lambert law (also known as Beer’s law):

A = \varepsilon lc

where:

A = absorbance at 280

\varepsilon = the molar extinction coefficient

l = path length of spectrometer

c = molar concentration of protein

Estimating The Molar Extinction Coefficient of a Protein

You can estimate the extinction coefficient of your protein based on the sequence using Expasy’s ProtParam tool.

Because ProtParam only considers the linear sequence of your protein and doesn’t take into account the structure, which can affect the extinction coefficient, you’ll want to denature your protein before you measure the absorbance. I like to denature proteins in 6 M guanidinium.

Advantages

This technique for measuring protein concentration is quick and doesn’t require any special reagents, except for the guanidinium, which you may have on hand anyway.

Disadvantages

This method relies on having an accurate extinction coefficient for your protein. The extinction coefficient differs depending on the number of aromatic residues in your protein. If there aren’t a decent number of aromatic residues, your extinction coefficient will be quite low, and you will need a fairly concentrated sample to get a reasonable absorbance (generally an absorbance between 0.1 and 1.0 is considered within the “linear range”).

Also, ProtParam warns that there may be at least a 10% error in the extinction coefficient if there are no tryptophans in your protein. Therefore, if your extinction coefficient is low, which is likely the case if there are no tryptophans in the sequence, a 10% error could significantly throw off your assessment of the final protein concentration.

Bradford Assay

How it works:

The Bradford assay is a colorimetric assay based on the interaction between Coomassie brilliant blue (you know, the stuff you stain your gels with) and the arginine and aromatic residues in your protein. When the dye binds to these residues, its maximum absorption shifts from 470 nm to 595 nm. 

In general, you measure the absorbance of a series of known concentrations of a standard protein, generally bovine serum albumin (BSA), and create a standard curve. You then use that standard curve to calculate the concentration of your protein sample based on its absorbance.

Advantages

This assay is quick, and the reagent is not affected by the presence of reducing agents, like DTT and \beta -mercaptoethanol, that may be in your buffer.

Disadvantages

Basic conditions and detergents, such as SDS, can interfere with the dye’s ability to bind to the protein; however, there are detergent-compatible Bradford reagents.

Also, like the absorbance at 280 nm technique, the Bradford assay depends on the sequence of your protein. If your protein doesn’t contain a decent number of arginine and/or aromatic residues, then the dye will not bind to the protein as efficiently, resulting in an underestimation of your protein concentration.

Finally, this technique depends on comparing the absorbance of your protein to that of a standard protein. So, if your protein doesn’t react to the dye in a similar manner as your standard protein, your concentration can be off.

The Bicinchoninic Acid (BCA) Assay

How it works

The BCA assay is another colorimetric assay like the Bradford assay. It makes use of the biuret reaction, in which the protein backbone chelates Cu2+ ions and reduces them to Cu1+ ions.

The Cu1+ ions then react with BCA to form a purple-colored product that absorbs at 562 nm. The procedure is similar to that of the Bradford assay, in which you create a standard curve based on a series of known protein standards.

Advantages

Because the peptide backbone is involved in the reaction, the BCA assay is less affected by differences in the amino acid composition of your protein. However, the reaction is influenced by cysteine, tyrosine, and tryptophan residues.

The reagent is not sensitive to detergents and denaturants, so it’s okay to have those in your buffer.

Disadvantages

The presence of reducing agents in your buffer can interfere with the dye, but there are reducing agent-compatible dyes available.

The reaction takes some time to proceed. Usually, the samples are incubated at 37°C for 15-30 min. Also, as in the Bradford assay, you determine your protein concentration by creating a standard curve from a known, standard protein. So again, if your protein doesn’t interact with the dye in a similar way as the standard protein, your concentration could be off.

Comparison of Techniques for Determination of Protein Concentration

Table 1 compares the 3 main techniques, including their key advantages and disadvantages.

Table 1: Comparison of methods for measuring protein concentration

 Absorbance at 280 nmBradford AssayBCA Assay
Detection range \mug/mL20 – 30001 – 2000.20 – 50
AdvantagesSample used for measurement is not lost (good for low sample amounts)

No specialized reagents

Fast
Highly accurate

Fast

No potential contaminates absorb at same wavelength
Highly accurate

Very sensitive

Not dependent on amino acid composition
DisadvantagesPresence of DNA and RNA can skew results

Requires tryptophan and tyrosine residues to be present in protein
Lose sample used for assay

Not compatible with detergents (e.g. SDS)

Dye binds to specific amino acids - particularly arginine
Lose sample used for assay

Not compatible with strong chelating agents (e.g. EDTA) or reducing agents (e.g. beta-mercaptoethanol)

Relatively slow
Standard curve required?NoYesYes

So there you have it: a few things to consider when choosing a technique for measuring protein concentration.

Choosing the right technique for your protein will take a bit of trial and error, but having a good technique in your back pocket to accurately measure your protein concentration will save you a lot of time and energy and help you get more reproducible results.

What’s your favorite way to measure protein concentration?

Originally published November 2011. Reviewed and updated October 2021.

7 Comments

  1. Vin on August 1, 2019 at 7:19 am

    Thank You. This is the right kind of information i was looking for.



  2. Mike on October 18, 2018 at 4:31 am

    Further to Ana’s question, what would you consider a “low” extinction coefficient to be?



  3. Barrack on November 23, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    How can I cite this article?



  4. Riya on July 29, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Hello,

    I want to measure blood protein concentration, which method would be best for this?



    • Leila on August 30, 2019 at 11:18 am

      I’d be very interested in this too. We’ve done several bradfords on plasma proteins (lysis buffer, urea buffer or ABC) and somehow the results are not reproducible so we think something in it might be disturbing the assay but we do not know what and now I am trying to look for alternate methods. All suggestions are welcome.



  5. Ana on March 18, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    hello,

    For my protein sample, I have an extinction co-efficient of 1.5308
    would you describe this as low?

    thank-you in advance



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