Nam Sun Wang
Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-2111
The reaction between alpha-amino acid and ninhydrin involved in the development of color are described by the following five mechanistic steps:
alpha-amino acid + ninhydrin ---> reduced ninhydrin + alpha-amino acid + H2O alpha-amino acid + H2O ---> alpha-keto acid +NH3 alpha-keto acid + NH3 ---> aldehyde + CO2
Step (1) is an oxidative deamination reaction that removes two hydrogen from the alpha-amino acid to yield an alpha-imino acid. Simultaneously, the original ninhydrin is reduced and loses an oxygen atom with the formation of a water molecule. In Step (2), the NH group in the alpha-imino acid is rapidly hydrolyzed to form an alpha-keto acid with the production of an ammonia molecule. This alpha-keto acid further undergoes decarboxylation reaction of Step (3) under a heated condition to form an aldehyde that has one less carbon atom than the original amino acid. A carbon dioxide molecule is produced here. These first three steps produce the reduced ninhydrin and ammonia that are required for the production of color in the last two Steps (4) and (5). The overall reaction for the above reactions is simply (slightly inaccurately) expressed in Reaction (6) as follows:
alpha-amino acid + 2 ninhydrin ---> CO2 + aldehyde + final complex(BlUE) + 3H2O
In summary, ninhydrin, which is originally yellow, reacts with amino acid and turns deep purple. It is this purple color that is detected in this method.Ninhydrin will react with a free alpha-amino group, NH2-C-COOH. This group is contained in all amino acids, peptides, or proteins. Whereas, the decarboxylation reaction will proceed for a free amino acid, it will not happen for peptides and proteins. Thus, theoretically only amino acids will lead to the color development. However, one should always check out the possible interference from peptides and proteins by performing blank tests especially when such solutions are readily available. For example, one can simply add the ninhydrin reagent to a solution of only proteins and see if there is any color development. There is no excuse for failing to perform such a vital test when the sample mixture contains both proteins and amino acids. There are also reports that chemical compounds other than amino acids also yield positive results.
This test can be used routinely for the detection of glycine in the absence of other interfering species. Although this is a fast and sensitive test for the presence of alpha-amino acids, because of the nonselectivity, it cannot be used to analyze the relative individual contents of a mixture of different amino acids. Furthermore, the color intensity developed is dependent on the type of amino acid. Finally, it does not react with tertiary or aromatic amines.
Note that since ninhydrin is a strong oxidizing agent, proper caution should be exercised in handling this compound. It is especially potent at the elevated temperature under which the reaction is carried out. The ninhydrin reagent will stain the skin blue and cannot be immediately washed off completely if it comes in contact with the skin. However, as in any other stain on the skin, the color will gradually rub off after about a day.
Absorbance assays are fast and convenient, since no additional reagents or incubations are required. No protein standard need be prepared. The assay does not consume the protein. The relationship of absorbance to protein concentration is linear. Because different proteins and nucleic acids have widely varying absorption characteristics there may be considerable error, especially for unknowns or protein mixtures. Any non-protein component of the solution that absorbs ultraviolet light will intefere with the assay. Cell and tissue fractionation samples often contain insoluble or colored components that interfere. The most common use for the absorbance assay is to monitor fractions from chromatography columns, or any time a quick estimation is needed and error in protein concentration is not a concern. An absorbance assay is recommended for calibrating bovine serum albumin or other pure protein solutions for use as standards in other methods.
Concentration (mg/ml) = Absorbance at 280 nm divided by path length (cm.)
Pure protein of known absorbance coefficient. Use the following formula for a path length of 1 cm. Concentration is in mg/ml, %, or molarity depending on which type coefficient is used.
concentration = Absorbance at 280 nm divided by absorbance coefficient
To convert units, use these relationships:
Mg protein/ml = % protein divided by 10 = molarity divided by protein molecular weight
Unknowns with possible nucleic acid contamination. Use the following formula to estimate protein concentration:
Concentration (mg/ml) = (1.55 x A280) – 0.76 x A260)
Absorbance coefficients of some common protein standards:
Hartree-Lowry and Modified Lowry Protein Assays
Considerations for use
The Lowry assay (1951) is an often-cited general use protein assay. For some time it was the method of choice for accurate protein determination for cell fractions, chromatography fractions, enzyme preparations, and so on. The bicinchoninic acid (BCA) assay is based on the same princple and can be done in one step, therefore it has been suggested (Stoscheck, 1990) that the 2-step Lowry method is outdated. However, the modified Lowry is done entirely at room temperature. The Hartree version of the Lowry assay, a more recent modification that uses fewer reagents, improves the sensitivity with some proteins, is less likely to be incompatible with some salt solutions, provides a more linear response, and is less likely to become saturated. The Hartree-Lowry assay will be described first.
Under alkaline conditions the divalent copper ion forms a complex with peptide bonds in which it is reduced to a monovalent ion. Monovalent copper ion and the radical groups of tyrosine, tryptophan, and cysteine react with Folin reagent to produce an unstable product that becomes reduced to molybdenum/tungsten blue.
In addition to standard liquid handling supplies a spectrophotometer with infrared lamp and filter is required. Glass or polystyrene (cheap) cuvettes may be used.
Procedure – Hartree-Lowry assay
Prepare a standard curve of absorbance versus micrograms protein (or vice versa), and determine amounts from the curve. Determine concentrations of original samples from the amount protein, volume/sample, and dilution factor, if any.
Procedure – modified Lowry (room temperature)