I work with biologists who often use the word "solubilize" to mean "dissolve".

Is this correct usage? I keep correcting them (I'm not a biologist, but I help with writing), and we've argued about it. Not all are native English speakers, so I've been attributing it to that. But maybe they're right. I want to know.

The context here is pharmacology - taking drugs in powder form and dissolving them in a vehicle for dosing lab animals.

I thought "solubilize" means to make something more soluble by adding (for example) soap. (for example: https://www.thefreedictionary.com/solubilisation ).

But they use "solubilize" to mean "dissolve". That usage doesn't seem to be standard English, but maybe it's normal usage as a term of art in pharmacology.

Is it?

For scientific writing in pharmacology, what is the standard usage? When we mean (standard English) "dissolve", which word should we be using, in order to be clearly understood and conform with standard professional terminology?

Added: Some of the commenters seem to misunderstand what I'm trying to ask, so I'll try to clarify.

I can read dictionaries as well as you can, and Google is my friend, too; I'm not asking what the standard dictionary definitions are (I already know).

I'm asking about how working biologists, English-speakers, use these words.

Do practicing biologists/pharmacologists use these terms differently than the standard English definitions? Are these "terms of art" in those fields, with a different definition? Or not?

Some of my colleagues insist that, in their field of biology/pharmacology, the word "solubilize" is used to mean what the dictionary says "dissolve" means. Are they correct, or are they mistaken (presumably because they're not native English speakers)?

I'm not a biologist and so don't know from personal experience. The people I work with are biologists but not native English speakers, so I'm not convinced they know either.

Thus, I'm asking here.

I've been asked for a sample sentence re how it's used. I don't see how that affects the answer, but here:

"Diphtheria toxin (List Biological Laboratories, Cat #150) was solubilized in sterile water at 2 mg/mL, aliquoted, and frozen at -20 C."

Is this correct usage or would "dissolved in sterile water" be better?

  • $\begingroup$ I think you'd need a more concrete example than "I work with biologists" for anyone to judge this. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5, 2020 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @David I'm not trying to be critical - I just want to know how the word is used by biologists, so I can use the word in our writing that will be understood best. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2020 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause This is mainly in the context of dosing drugs. We start usually with a compound in powder form, then stir/heat/sonicate/mix various other things (vehicles) to produce a dosing solution. Not being a biologist, I'd call that "dissolving". We write a report about what we did - should I call that "dissolving" the drug, or "solubulizing" it? I'm not trying to be a language Nazi; I just want to be understood clearly. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2020 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @nerdfever.com so you could say that you are making things more soluble by stirring/heating/sonicating them? Why would a chemical treatment (soap) differ from a physical one (heating)? $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2021 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MaximilianPress I don't know - the soap reference was something I found in a dictionary. I'm asking about how working biologists use these words. I'm not a biologist and I don't know; the people I work with are not native English speakers, so I don't trust what they think about it. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2021 at 21:03

1 Answer 1


I think I found an answer at Science Direct where multiple definitions are provided, among one from Thomson (2012):

Solubilization is the action of certain chemical reagents on organic materials (such as animal or plant tissue) that effects a structural breakdown (or digestion) into a liquid form that can then be directly dissolved [...]

and from Lau (2011):

Solubilization is the increase in solubility of a poorly water–soluble substance with surface-active agents. The mechanism involves entrapment (adsorbed or dissolved) of molecules in micelles and the tendency of surfactants to form colloidal aggregations at critical micelle concentration levels.

From these definitions I understand that solubilization is a process to make something dissolvable. The process of dissolving thus happens after the solubilization (definition #1) or during the process of solubilization process (definition #2). Thus, solubilization and dissolving are separate processes (definition #1) or dissolving is considered a part of the process of solubilization (definition #2).

So admittedly, at this stage I am unsure to what exactly the two terms mean exactly, but they are certainly not interchangeable terms.

And regarding your comment

...that it's not unusual for experienced biologists themselves to be unsure which is the proper term here. Even native English speakers

I totally second Bryan's response

Language is messy, scientific terminology included...

This is because terminology tends to stick after having been adopted widely, even if it proves to be incorrect. Consider for instance the fact that current always flows from + to - in schematics, but that electrons definiely choose to go the other way around. Scientific terminology is messy indeed.

- Lau, Preformulation Studies. In: Handbook of Modern Pharmaceutical Analysis: 173-233
- Thomson, Handbook of Radioactivity Analysis (3rd ed.) 2012: 575-623

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    $\begingroup$ @nerdfever.com Pretty sure AliceD is in fact an experienced biologist. I would consider myself one as well, and this answer is probably as close as you are going to get to an "official definition". At the same time, I guarantee you this term, like many others, may not be used strictly. Language is messy, scientific terminology included. So, getting back to my old comment (which I didn't really explain), you need better context for the description you give for anyone to judge the "correctness", but I highly doubt anyone would confuse the meaning in context. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 21, 2021 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause Thanks. I'm interpreting that to mean that it's not unusual for experienced biologists themselves to be unsure which is the proper term here. Even native English speakers. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2021 at 1:35
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    $\begingroup$ @nerdfever.com It's hard to even argue what the proper term is when you haven't given an example; you say your colleagues use "solubilize" to mean "dissolve" but it seems just as likely to me that they mean "solubilize" and you think they mean "dissolve". AliceD has explained they aren't quite interchangeable yet their meanings are a bit intertwined. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 21, 2021 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause I did try to clarify the question. It now includes "taking drugs in powder form and dissolving them in a vehicle for dosing lab animals." What other context would be helpful? $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2021 at 2:13
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    $\begingroup$ @nerdfever.com An entire sentence where the term is used would be helpful. I can't see how that would be difficult to provide, but if for some reason it is, maybe at least a specific drug and a specific vehicle, so you can construct your own sentence "we solubilize (specific drug A) in (specific vehicle X.Y mM Z in PQRS)" $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 21, 2021 at 2:25

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