To understand the best ways to develop preparative and industrial scale adsorption separations in biotechnology, it’s critical to understand the thermodynamics of solute binding. In this blog, I’ll review some basics of the Langmuir binding isotherm. This isotherm is a fairly simplistic view of adsorption and desorption, however, it applies fairly well to typical protein separations, such as ion exchange and affinity chromatography.

A chemical solution that is brought into contact with a resin that has binding sites for that chemical will partition between the solution phase and the resin phase. The partitioning will be driven by some form of affinity or equilibrium, that can be considered fairly constant at constant solution phase conditions. By “solution phase conditions”, I mean temperature, pH, conductivity, salt and other modifier concentrations. Changing these conditions changes the equilibrium partitioning. If we represent the molecule in solution by “c” and the same molecule adsorbed to the resin by “q”, then the simple mathematical relationship is:

If the capacity of the resin for the chemical is unlimited, then this is the end of the story, the equilibrium is “linear” and the behavior of the adsorption is easy to understand as the dispersion is completely mass transfer controlled. A example of this is size exclusion chromatography, where the resin has no affinity for the chemical, it simply excludes solutes larger than the pore or polymer mesh length. For resins where there are discrete “sites” to which the chemical might bind, or a finite “surface” of some kind with which the chemical has some interaction, then the equilibrium is described by:

and the maximum capacity of the resin has to be accounted for with a “site” balance, such as shown below:

Where S

_{tot}represents the total number of binding sites, and S

_{0}represents the number of binding sites not occupied by the chemical of interest. The math becomes a little more complicated when you worry about what might be occupying that site, or if you want to know what happens when the molecule of interest occupies more than one site at a time. We’ll leave these important considerations for another day. Typically, the total sites can be measured. Resin vendors use terms such as “binding capacity” or “dynamic binding capacity” to advertise the capacity of their resins. The capacity is often dependent on the chemical of interest. The resulting relationship between c and q is no longer linear, it is represented by this equation:

When c is small, the denominator of this equation becomes 1, and the equilibrium equation looks like the linear equilibrium equation. When c is large, the denominator becomes K

_{eq}c, and the resin concentration of the chemical is equal to the resin capacity, S

_{tot}. When c is in between small and large, the isotherm bends over in a convex shape. This is shown in the graph below.

There are three basic conditions in preparative and industrial chromatographic operations. In the first, K

_{eq}is very low, and there is little or no binding of the chemical to the resin. This is represented by the red squares in the graph above. This is the case with “flow through” fractions in chromatography, and would generally be the case when the chemical has the same charge as the resin. In the third, K

_{eq}is very high, and the chemical is bound quantitatively to the resin, even at low concentrations. This is represented by the green triangles in the graph above. This is the case with chemicals that are typically only released when the column is “stripped” or “regenerated”. In these cases, the solution phase conditions are changed to turn K

_{eq}from a large number to a small number during the regeneration by using a high salt concentration or an extreme pH. The second case is the most interesting, and is the condition for most “product” fractions, where a separation is being made. That is, when the solution phase conditions are tuned so that the desired product is differentially adsorbing and desorbing, allowing other chemicals with slightly higher or lower affinities to elute either before or after the desired product, it is almost always the case that the equilibrium constant is not such that binding is quantitative or non-existent. In these cases, the non-linearity of the isotherm has consequences for the shape of the elution peak. We will discuss these consequences in a future blog.

In a “Quality-by-Design” world, these non-linearities would be understood and accounted for the in the design of the chromatography operation. An excellent example of the resulting non-linearity of the results was shown by Oliver Kaltenbrunner in 2008.

Relying on linear statistics to uncover this basic thermodynamic behavior is a fool’s errand. However, using basic lab techniques (a balance and a spectrophotometer) the isotherm for your product of interest can be determined directly, and the chromatographic behavior understood. This is the path to process understanding!

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