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Microbiol Rev. Dec 1992; 56(4): 509–528.
PMCID: PMC372885

Use of gel retardation to analyze protein-nucleic acid interactions.


Protein-nucleic acid interactions are crucial in the regulation of many fundamental cellular processes. The nature of these interactions is susceptible to analysis by a variety of methods, but the combination of high analytical power and technical simplicity offered by the gel retardation (band shift) technique has made this perhaps the most widely used such method over the last decade. This procedure is based on the observation that the formation of protein-nucleic complexes generally reduces the electrophoretic mobility of the nucleic acid component in the gel matrix. This review attempts to give a simplified account of the physical basis of the behavior of protein-nucleic acid complexes in gels and an overview of many of the applications in which the technique has proved especially useful. The factors which contribute most to the resolution of the complex from the naked nucleic acid are the gel pore size, the relative mass of protein compared with nucleic acid, and changes in nucleic acid conformation (bending) induced by binding. The consequences of induced bending on the mobility of double-strand DNA fragments are similar to those arising from sequence-directed bends, and the latter can be used to help characterize the angle and direction of protein-induced bends. Whether a complex formed in solution is actually detected as a retarded band on a gel depends not only on resolution but also on complex stability within the gel. This is strongly influenced by the composition and, particularly, the ionic strength of the gel buffer. We discuss the applications of the technique to analyzing complex formation and stability, including characterizing cooperative binding, defining binding sites on nucleic acids, analyzing DNA conformation in complexes, assessing binding to supercoiled DNA, defining protein complexes by using cell extracts, and analyzing biological processes such as transcription and splicing.

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