We investigated the effects of pH and ionic strength of solutions used for antigen retrieval to elucidate the mechanism of heat-induced antigen retrieval (HIAR) in immunohistochemistry. The immunostaining intensity of nuclear, cytoplasmic, cell membrane, and extracellular matrix antigens with 17 different antibodies was evaluated in formaldehyde-fixed and paraffin-embedded mouse and human tissues. Deparaffinized sections were autoclaved for 10 min in buffers with different pH values ranging from 3.0 to 10.5. To test the influence of ionic strength on immunoreactions, the sections were autoclaved for 10 min in 20 mM Tris-HCl buffers (TB) at pH 9.0 and 10.5 with or without 25, 50, and 100 mM NaCl. There were two immunostaining patterns for pH dependency of HIAR. First, the majority of antibodies recovered their antigenicity when heated in the buffers with both acidic pH (pH 3.0) and basic pH (pH 9.0 and 10.5). Second, some antibodies showed strong immunostaining only at basic pH values (pH 9.0 and 10.5). When the sections were autoclaved in TB at pH 9.0, immunostaining of all eight antibodies examined decreased as the NaCI concentration increased. On the other hand, when the sections were treated with TB at pH 10.5, all antibodies yielded stronger reactions in the buffer containing NaCl than in the buffer without NaCl; five antibodies exhibited the strongest immunoreaction at concentrations from 25 to 50 mM. These results suggest that the extended polypeptides by heating are charged negatively or positively at basic or acidic pH, and that an electrostatic repulsion force acts to prevent random entangling of polypeptides caused by hydrophobic attractive force and to expose antigenic determinants, during cooling process of HIAR solution.
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