Gel documentation is an indispensable part of life science research. Although technological progress has transformed gel-related workflows, some parts still take up a significant amount of scientists’ time. The latest trends in gel documentation instrument design are aimed at speeding up and making the process easier.
A research scientist’s regular day can be full of elaborate experiments, data analyses, and testing hypotheses. Collecting the data to support this scientific workflow is an indispensable part of the process. Although performed daily and often perceived as ‘background noise’ in research, it is an essential task crucial for the trustworthiness and reproducibility of results.
Data collection workflows involve steps like cell culture work, extraction of biomolecules, as well as their quantification and analysis using gel systems. However, due to a lack of standard operating procedures and limited sharing of results, these steps are often neglected, leading to error accumulation, mistakes, and ultimately, biased results.
But technological progress is continually pushing the limits of scientific research, and advances in the automation and digitalization of routine laboratory workflows are delivering additional improvements: reducing timelines, lowering user-to-user variability, and improving the quality and reproducibility of results. Consequently, scientists can focus more on the analysis and interpretation of their research.
“A lot of the basic needs of the researcher have been fulfilled already,” said Paul Liu, Global Product Manager at Bio-Rad Laboratories. “The area for growth is the movement towards digital workflows. There’s been a simultaneous trend for simplification of the hardware and usability, as well as the integration into the digital workflow.”
Digitalization of gel imaging
DNA and protein research is essential in almost any field. Visualization and analysis of a researcher’s gels account for one of the most common lab tasks scientists perform daily.
Gel imaging is an excellent example of an area where innovative efforts are being invested in the automation and digitalization of the experimental workflow, data acquisition, and sharing.
This has been the case for the western blot technique for protein analysis. Over the last years, this method has achieved some outstanding improvements with the introduction of digital image acquisition.
With their higher sensitivity and linearity, these instruments rapidly became the method of choice and overtook the classic image acquisition in dark rooms. As the camera’s sophistication and sensitivity are already at their best, manufacturers are now turning to user-friendliness.
“The flexibility of applications that those imagers support has been fleshed out and matured. The advances are mainly around two places. The first one is usability and then also around sharing the data”, reflected Liu.
Focusing on user-friendliness
Indeed, usability and better data communication find great potential in the area of gel documentation. Although this is a task that appears quick and simple, gel imaging – whether it is the final or intermediate part of an analytical process – is an indispensable step in many experimental workflows.
The analysis step often takes a significant amount of time, especially if instruments are in different locations. This strongly limits the time scientists have to focus on more crucial and attention-demanding aspects of the research process.
The international life science product provider Bio-Rad Laboratories is tackling this issue with its new instrument for gel documentation, the GelDoc Go Imaging System. The GelDoc Go is a benchtop imaging system that provides solutions for all user’s needs, including protein gels, DNA gels, and membranes.
In addition to these multiple applications, the major advancement this machine brings to the lab’s daily life is the way it simplifies small but time-consuming tasks. “We’ve made the usability and the industrial design to be as convenient as possible. The software interface has been refined and is very intuitive. A user can approach the instrument and not require any training,” Liu explained.
Many aspects of the instrument’s design, such as its size and software (Image Lab Touch Software), make it easy to introduce into the lab’s workflow. “The small size integrates into the physical workflow. We’ve improved the ability of the instrument to share data securely. So that the digital workflow is also smoother,” Liu added.
Simplified workflows address limitations
Western blot normalization is a crucial step for correct protein quantification. Normalization is the analytical process of comparing changes in protein levels between samples and gel lanes that shows whether they result from a biological change or from preparation variability. It relies on internal loading controls – proteins of known concentration – that are used to measure the sample’s concentration.
For a long time, house-keeping proteins were used for this purpose, but several studies have reported their expression to be variable, and normalization to total protein amounts is becoming a more reliable method.
Stain-Free gels developed by Bio-Rad consist of acrylamide gels containing a special compound that, when briefly exposed to UV light following electrophoresis, results in fluorescent staining of all proteins present on the gel, which persists even when transferred to a membrane. Compared to the classical Ponceau staining, this Stain-Free method offers a quicker and more sensitive assessment of total protein levels.
“It’s a way of visualizing proteins without having to do a separate staining step,” Liu explained. “You run your gel, you activate it for one minute or 45 seconds on an imager, and you immediately get an image of the total protein count.”
The capability of GelDoc Go for Stain-Free detection allows for a faster and more comprehensive data quantification. Conveniently, it also helps investigators ensure that proteins have been successfully separated and transferred before proceeding with antibody stainings.
The era of scientist-centered instrument design
Instruments like GelDoc Go illustrate the new trends in life science industrial design. As a part of delivering automation to the research process, they are strongly influenced by researchers’ experiences and are progressively becoming more scientist-centered.
“We watched customers interact with different instruments and watched their behavior in labs,” said Liu. In this instance, the Bio-Rad team observed that researchers often place their gels on top of imaging instruments, motivating the manufacturer to install a spill mat at the top and a waterproof front.
There is a growing trend for the design and development of life science instruments and materials that are more adapted to researchers’ real needs. This will not only make complex workflows easier but is likely to positively contribute to limiting variability and increasing reproducibility, a much-needed step forward to delivering high-quality and trustworthy research.
Are you tired of spending extra time on gel imaging-related activities instead of focusing on other tasks? Check out Bio-Rad’s GelDoc Go solution or get in touch with the company’s experts for more information!