Cell-based screening using phenotypic assays is a useful means of identifying bioactive chemicals for use as tools to elucidate complex cellular processes. However, the chemicals must display sufficient selectivity and their targets have to be identified. We describe how cell-based screening assays can be designed to maximize the likelihood of discovering selective compounds through the choice of positive readouts, low chemical concentrations and long incubation periods. Examining the potency, efficacy and activity range of chemicals can further help set apart those likely to act more specifically. Identifying the cellular targets of active chemicals can be especially demanding. Secondary screens and the cautious use of the candidate approach can help narrow down their mechanisms of action, but biased approaches may lead to the identification of secondary or even irrelevant targets. We discuss strategies for unbiased target identification by sampling potential targets at the genome-wide and proteome-wide levels.
Keywords: Activity-based protein profiling, activity range, Caenorhabditis elegans, candidate approach, chemical biology, chemical-genetic interactions, drug discovery, drug-induced haploinsufficiency, drug targets, proteome profiling