Send to

Choose Destination
Biotech Histochem. 2007 Jun;82(3):133-40.

Macromolecular changes caused by formalin fixation and antigen retrieval.

Author information

Dapson & Dapson, LLC, Richland, MI 49083, USA.


Although the mechanics of formalin fixation and antigen retrieval have been studied extensively and reviewed periodically, little attention has been directed toward conformational changes in target molecules. Formaldehyde changes the shape of tissue molecules by appending small hydroxymethyl groups to them. These adducts, in turn, can react with other tissue molecules to form crosslinks, or they can participate in a variety of reactions during tissue processing, including formation of imines, ethoxymethyl adducts, and further crosslinks. Under the influence of alcohol dehydration, fixed DNA may fragment and form a variety of depurination products. The situation becomes even more complex with short fixation times because under these conditions, the dehydrating agent used for tissue processing denatures macromolecules in other ways, most notably through rearrangement of molecular shape to move hydrophobic realms outward and hydrophilic areas inward (hydrophobic inversions). How tissue molecules are modified affects the outcome of immunohistochemical staining and prospects for restoration of antigenicity. Immunoreacitivity may be compromised because epitopes are either sterically hidden, but otherwise unaffected, or they have been altered more directly. Enzyme-based retrieval methods are best suited for the former because they literally snip the molecule apart to reveal the portions of interest. Heat-induced retrieval with buffers can demodify affected epitopes by removing adducts and breaking crosslinks. The choice of temperature and pH is usually critical for optimal retrieval. Effective temperatures are directly related to the strength of bonds-higher temperatures are needed to break stronger bonds. The pH of the retrieval solution determines the charge on the tissue molecule; the goal is to create a charge that causes the demodified molecule to assume a near natural conformation. Rational use of these concepts should lead to better control of immunohistochemical reactions.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Taylor & Francis
Loading ...
Support Center