Understanding how wildlife cope with stressors gives us insight into their potential impact. To quantify key hormones of stress - glucocorticoids – one needs to measure both how much there is in plasma (Total) and how much is not bound to a specific binding protein (Free). Here, we layout the first step in calculating FREE – measuring how strongly the specific protein binds the glucocorticoid.
Plasma glucocorticoids (GCs) are commonly used as measures of stress in wildlife. A great deal of evidence indicates that only free GC (GC not bound by the specific binding protein, corticosteroid-binding globulin, CBG) leaves the circulation and exerts biological effects on GC-sensitive tissues. Free hormone concentrations are difficult to measure directly, so researchers estimate free GC using two measures: the binding affinity and the binding capacity in plasma. We provide an inexpensive saturation binding method for calculating the binding affinity (equilibrium dissociation constant, K d) of CBG that can be run without specialized laboratory equipment. Given that other plasma proteins, such as albumin, also bind GCs, the method compensates for this non-specific binding. Separation of bound GC from free GC was achieved with dextran-coated charcoal. The method provides repeatable estimates (12% coefficient of variation in the red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), and there is little evidence of inter-individual variation in K d (range 2.0–7.3 nM for 16 Richardson's ground squirrels, Urocitellus richardsonii). The K d values of 28 mammalian species we assessed were mostly clustered around a median of 4 nM, but five species had values between 13 and 61 nM. This pattern may be distinct from birds, for which published values are more tightly distributed (1.5–5.1 nM). The charcoal separation method provides a reliable and robust method for measuring the K d in a wide range of species. It uses basic laboratory equipment to provide rapid results at very low cost. Given the importance of CBG in regulating the biological activity of GCs, this method is a useful tool for physiological ecologists.