The steps of the general, "indirect," ELISA for determining serum antibody concentrations are:
1. Apply a sample of known antigen of known concentration to a surface, often the well of a microtiter plate. The antigen is fixed to the surface to render it immobile. Simple adsorption of the protein to the plastic surface is usually sufficient. These samples of known antigen concentrations will constitute a standard curve used to calculate antigen concentrations of unknown samples. Note that the antigen itself may be an antibody.
2. A concentrated solution of non-interacting protein, such as bovine serum albumin (BSA) or casein, is added to all plate wells. This step is known as blocking, because the serum proteins block non-specific adsorption of other proteins to the plate.
3. The plate wells or other surface are then coated with serum samples of unknown antigen concentration, diluted into the same buffer used for the antigen standards. Since antigen immobilization in this step is due to non-specific adsorption, it is important for the total protein concentration to be similar to that of the antigen standards.
4. The plate is washed, and a detection antibody specific to the antigen of interest is applied to all plate wells. This antibody will only bind to immobilized antigen on the well surface, not to other serum proteins or the blocking proteins.
5. Secondary antibodies, which will bind to any remaining detection antibodies, are added to the wells. These secondary antibodies are conjugated to the substrate-specific enzyme. This step may be skipped if the detection antibody is conjugated to an enzyme.
6. Wash the plate, so that excess unbound enzyme-antibody conjugates are removed.
7. Apply a substrate which is converted by the enzyme to elicit a chromogenic or fluorogenic or electrochemical signal.
8. View/quantify the result using a spectrophotometer, spectrofluorometer, or other optical/electrochemical device.
The enzyme acts as an amplifier; even if only few enzyme-linked antibodies remain bound, the enzyme molecules will produce many signal molecules. A major disadvantage of the indirect ELISA is that the method of antigen immobilization is non-specific; any proteins in the sample will stick to the microtiter plate well, so small concentrations of analyte in serum must compete with other serum proteins when binding to the well surface. The sandwich ELISA provides a solution to this problem.
ELISA may be run in a qualitative or quantitative format. Qualitative results provide a simple positive or negative result for a sample. The cutoff between positive and negative is determined by the analyst and may be statistical. Two or three times the standard deviation is often used to distinguish positive and negative samples. In quantitative ELISA, the optical density or fluorescent units of the sample is interpolated into a standard curve, which is typically a serial dilution of the target.