The purpose of an ELISA is to determine if a particular protein is present in a sample and if so, how much. There are two main variations on this method: you can determine how much antibody is in a sample, or you can determine how much protein is bound by an antibody. The distinction is whether you are trying to quantify an antibody or some other protein. In this example, we will use an ELISA to determine how much of a particular antibody is present in an individuals blood.
ELISAs are performed in 96-well plates which permits high throughput results. The bottom of each well is coated with a protein to which will bind the antibody you want to measure. Whole blood is allowed to clot and the cells are centrifuged out to obtain the clear serum with antibodies (called primary antibodies). The serum is incubated in a well, and each well contains a different serum (see figure below). A positive control serum and a negative control serum would be included among the 96 samples being tested.
After some time, the serum is removed and weakly adherent antibodies are washed off with a series of buffer rinses. To detect the bound antibodies, a secondary antibody is added to each well. The secondary antibody would bind to all human antibodies and is typically produced in a rodent. Attached to the secondary antibody is an enzyme such as peroxidase or alkaline phosphatase. These enzymes can metabolize colorless substrates (sometimes called chromagens) into colored products. After an incubation period, the secondary antibody solution is removed and loosely adherent ones are washed off as before. The final step is the addition the enzyme substrate and the production of colored product in wells with secondary antibodies bound.
When the enzyme reaction is complete, the entire plate is placed into a plate reader and the optical density (i.e. the amount of colored product) is determined for each well. The amount of color produced is proportional to the amount of primary antibody bound to the proteins on the bottom of the wells. The University of Arizona has an excellent QuickTime animation and quiz if you want further information.