Describe chromogenic substrates in practice

Measurements made using chromogenic substrates reflect enzyme activity. Often it is more important to have knowledge about the activity of an enzyme than of the amount or mass – the quantity recorded in an immunological assay. Synthetic substrates are very sensitive, i.e. they can detect very low enzyme activities. They are in fact often more sensitive than a corresponding natural substrate.

This ability of chromogenic substrates to detect low enzyme concentrations makes them useful in, for example, the search for the presence of certain enzyme activities either in research or in quality control procedures. Sometimes there is a lack in correspondence between a natural and a chromogenic substrate in their responses to a certain enzyme preparation. For example, thrombin that has been partly degraded through autohydrolysis (ß-thrombin) reacts just as well with its chromogenic substrate as does the native form of thrombin (α-thrombin) while only native thrombin reacts with the natural substrate fibrinogen.

A chromogenic substrate is less selective, i.e. it has less discrimination in its reactivity towards related enzymes compared to the natural substrate. However, this lack of absolute selectivity can be compensated for when setting up chromogenic substrate assays. This is done by the proper selection of type of buffer, pH, relative concentrations of sample and reagents, addition of inhibitors, and/or choice of activator or incubation times. When presented with the opportunity of using one or more chromogenic substrates in a particular experimental setting for which there is no existing method, there are a few considerations that are worthwhile to make.


If the specificity of the enzymatic activity to be measure-red is known then comprehensive overviews such as the Selectivity Tables will serve as a guide in selecting a proper substrate. The local distributor of Chromogenix products may also be contacted for advice on the choice of substrate(s). If the specificity of the enzyme is unknown, a screening procedure can be applied. When different substrates are available, such screening of the enzyme specificity can be carried out by comparing the rate of hydrolysis or pNA-generation obtained with the different substrates. Unless certain experience is available to the investigators it is usually advisable to discuss the plan and/or the result with Chromogenix. Advice on the next step can thus be given concerning either continued screening or the selection of a particular substrate that is suitable in the planned investigation.

Contaminating enzymes

If the sample to be tested with a chromogenic substrate contains more than one enzyme that may react with the same substrate, there are a number of measures that can be taken in order to eliminate the interfering/ contaminating activity. A natural or synthetic inhibitor can be introduced, the sample can be further diluted or conditions can be found (different pH and/or buffer) where the relative activities of the present enzymes are optimized. Such considerations can be based on the information below concerning temperature, pH, buffer and ionic strength.


The rate by which the chromogenic substrate is cleaved is highly dependent on the temperature. It is therefore important to know at what temperature(s) a particular method is applicable – it may be at room (ambient) temperature, 25, 30, or 37 °C. An increase in temperature of 1 °C causes an increase in the reaction velocity of 2.5-7.5%. The temperature thus must be kept constant during the measurement and if results from different experiments are to be compared they must be performed at the same temperature. It is advisable to run the reactions in thermostated cuvettes and to use preheated stock solutions.


Both Km and kcat are dependent on the pH. This means that kinetic calculations can only be made using results obtained at the same pH. Usually, the enzyme activity is measured at the pH optimum for the proteolytic activity of the enzyme. However, when several proteases are present in the same solution, as, e.g. when the sample is from plasma, it is not always advantageous to search for the pH that gives the maximum reactivity of the enzyme under investigation. Instead it is better to choose a pH where other serine proteases that may compete for the substrate have relatively lower levels of activity.


The buffer medium and the concentration of buffer substances must be well defined. Usually Tris-HCl is used since the pKa of Tris buffer is 8.1 (25 °C), which makes it suitable for measurements at pH values between 7.3-9.3, where most of the serine proteases show maximal activities. Furthermore, this buffer is stable – it can even be autoclaved. Tris-imidazole has also been used, but is not to be recommended as imidazole is known to slightly inhibit certain proteases such as trypsin and plasmin.

Ionic strength and other additives

The appropriate ionic strength is usually obtained by adjusting the concentration of NaCl. Further substances that it may be necessary to add are CaCl2 (when Ca-dependent enzymes are studied), NaN3 (or other bactericidal agents) to prevent bacterial growth and polyethylene glycol or Tween 80 to prevent adsorption of the enzymes to the reaction vessel walls.

Substrate handling

The substrate solution is usually prepared by adding sterile water to the dry powder. Chromogenic substrates with low solubility in water can be dissolved in DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide) and then diluted in water. The final DMSO concentration should preferably not exceed 10% in the reaction mixture. Chromogenic substrates dissolved in sterile water are stable for more than 6 months in the refrigerator (2 – 8 °C) and for several weeks at room temperature (25 °C). The stability is considerably reduced in alkaline buffers. Furthermore, contamination by microorganisms and exposure to light for longer periods should be avoided. The substrate concentration should be chosen so that linear kinetics is obtained. A substrate concentration of twice the Km (2 x Km ) is usually appropriate.