In this study, we examined the mechanism of heat-induced antigen retrieval using analytical procedures involving SDS-PAGE, Western blotting, and immunohistochemistry. Five proteins were treated with 4% formaldehyde in the presence or absence of 25 mM CaCl2, then heated under various conditions after removal of formaldehyde and analyzed on SDS-PAGE. Formaldehyde produced inter- and intramolecular cross-links in the proteins. Heating at high temperatures cleaved these cross-links at all pH ranges examined (pH 3.0, 6.0, 7.5, 9.0) and produced almost the same electrophoregrams as the native proteins. Proteins treated with formaldehyde containing CaCl2 showed similar electrophoretic patterns, observed without heating or after heating at pH 6.0 and pH 9.0 in the presence or absence of 10 mM EDTA. Western blot analyses demonstrated that the soluble forms of β-actin (monomer and oligomers) and fibronectin were present in extracts from deparaffinized mouse uterine sections autoclaved for 15 min but not in extracts from unheated specimens. Nine of ten antigens, independent of their isoelectric points, exhibited much stronger immunoreaction in the sections heated at pH 9.0 than in those heated at pH 6.0. The second heating at pH 6.0 significantly decreased the immunostaining of the antigens that had been boiled at pH 9.0, but the immunostaining was recovered after a third heating at pH 9.0. These results suggest that the main mechanism of heat-induced antigen retrieval is disruption of the cross-links and that pH is an essential factor for a proper refolding of epitopes.
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