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Southern, northern, western (and eastern?)

It’s official – biologists DO have a sense of humor, well some of them at least.

This is the story of how one of the most famous and quirky naming conventions in biology came into being. It’s a story of discovery, comedy and the triumph of people power over the establishment.

Read on to find out the story of how the Southern, northern and western (etc) blots got their names.

In 1975 when Ed Southern invented his method of using a radiolabeled DNA probe to detect a specific DNA sequence within a DNA sample (e.g. a fractionated genome) and named it after himself – the Southern blot – I’m sure that he had no idea about what he had started.

Two years later, J.C. Alwine, a biologist with a sense of humor, developed a technique analogous to the Southern blot, this time for the identification of a specific RNA within a complex RNA sample using a radio-labelled DNA probe. Alwine couldn’t resist the temptation to call his technique the northern blot in an allusion to Southern’s technique, raising a chuckles in labs everywhere.

Then W. Neal Burnette, a post-doc working in the Nowinski group at the Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, started the real fun.

Burnette was searching for a way to combine the powers of radio immunoassay and SDS-PAGE electrophoresis so that he could pinpoint specific antigens in a complex protein mixture, such as a cell extract.

After some “laughably naive” (his own words – see this great account by Burnette himself) attempts to visualise the interaction between antibodies and the separated proteins in the gels, he was inspired by Alwine’s nothern blot method (so indirectly by the Southern blot) to make a solid phase replica of the gel. So he developed the method of using electrophoresis to blot the protein onto nitrocellulose paper and after some further work, perfected the technique of blocking non-specific binding sites and visualising the specific radioimmunolabelled antigens using an X-Ray film.

In a historic, but mostly forgotten conversation with Nowinski, Burnette coined the name “western blot” for his technique. What fun. Like nothern blotting, “western blot” was also an allusion to the Southern and nothern techniques, but Burnette had upped the ante by throwing in a geographical reference to location of the Nowinski lab. So if the Nowinski lab had been in New York, we would all be doing “eastern” blots.

A quick aside for the pedants among us. Note that among these techniques, only the Southern blot should be capitalised since it refers to Southern’s name, the others – nothern, western etc – are not proper nouns, so should not be capitalised. Try pulling your boss up on that one next time he is in mid-flow talking about a “Northern blot” in a departmental presentation.

Anyway, back to our story. Unfortunately for Burnette no sooner had he perfected his technique than a paper describing a very similar method, also inspired by nothern blotting, was published by Towbin et al working at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Switzerland (see here for the reference and here for Towbin’s account of events).

Burnette was dejected, but nonetheless, convinced that his methodology was sufficiently different to Towbin’s, he decided to submit a manuscript on his western blot method to the Analytical Biochemistry journal.

The reviewers hated it, they hated the name even more – obviously humor was not high on their agenda – and the manuscript was rejected.

But despite this, the popularisation of Burnette’s technique, and particularly the name “western blot” still happened even without the assistance of the literary establishment. It happened through the sense of humor of the researchers who were doing the work, through people power (assisted by Xerox power).

It happened because researchers, besides being interested in the technique itself, were tickled enough by its quirky name to make copies and send it to their friends. In Burnette’s words…

“…the few preprints I had sent to colleagues seemed to have undergone logarithmic Xerox multiplication. I began receiving phone calls from researchers unable to read the umpteenth photocopied generation of the pre-print, a sort of technical samizdat that I had to endlessly interpret”

A few years later, Burnette eventually coaxed Analytical Biochemistry into accepting his paper and it was published in 1981 (see here), but by then, word of mouth had already beaten them to it. Ironically, considering the people power that was doubtless (at least partly) responsible for it’s eventual publication, Burnette’s paper is available only to Analytical Biochemistry subscribers. *end of open access rant*

Bowen and colleagues continued the naming convention in 1981 with their publication of the southwestern blot, a technique for identifying DNA-binding proteins in nuclear protein extracts using specific oligonucleotide probes. The “south” in the name refers to the use of DNA probes, while the “west” refers to the protein blot.

Interestingly, Bowen’s paper alludes to Burnette’s western blot even though it was published before Burnette’s paper, which shows just how strongly word-of-mouth actually publicised the western blot.

And in 1998, Ishikawa and Taki published their far-eastern blotting method, no doubt a reference to their geographical location, for the analysis of lipids by TLC separation followed by blotting onto a PDVF membrane.

Finally, there is one blot that deserves mention. Legend has it (well, the legend of the bio.net forum at least) that Ethan Signer coined the phrase “eastern blot” for the tantric practice of willing a failed gel into show bands. Apparently, you take your blank gel, meditate, repeat the mantra, and the bands appear…

…if only!

If you’re a biologist with a sense of humor, join in by telling us about your favorite quirky naming conventions in the comments section.

Photo:nullalux

12 Comments

  1. Abe on March 30, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Eastern blotting is the detection of post-translational protein modification.

  2. Nick on July 11, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Yes I love some of those Drosophila gene names. Also I once heard a story that Janus kinase (JAK) was originally called “Just Another kinase” after it was pulled out of a kinase screen by a bored researcher, then hastily re-named Janus kinase to fit the JAK acronym after it’s importance was discovered.

    Edit: I just looked this up in a google search and amazingly, this story is true – according to Wikipedia at least. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus_kinase

  3. C on July 10, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Drosophila gene shibire and the temp sensitive allele:
    shi[ts]!

  4. Steve on July 9, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Shh – sonic hedgehog. Makes me laugh every time.

  5. Dave Bridges on July 9, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    some people also refer to far-western blots, to probe protein-protein interactions

  6. BioBlubb on July 9, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Maybe not really a convention but in any case really quirky… Drosophila gene names! These fly guys really do have a sense of humour…

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