BACKGROUND: Quantitative proteomic analyses have traditionally used two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2DE) for separation and characterisation of complex protein mixtures. Among the difficulties associated with this approach is the solubilisation of protein mixtures for isoelectric focusing (IEF). To find the optimal formulation of the multi-component IEF rehydration buffer (RB) we applied the Taguchi method, a widely used approach for the robust optimisation of complex industrial processes, to determine optimal concentrations for the detergents, carrier ampholytes and reducing agents in RB for 2DE using commercially supplied immobilised pH gradient (IPG) gel strips. RESULTS: Our optimisation resulted in increased protein solubility, improved resolution and reproducibility of 2D gels, using a wide variety of samples. With the updated protocol we routinely detected approximately 4-fold more polypeptides on samples containing complex protein mixtures resolved on small format 2D gels. In addition the pI and size ranges over which proteins could be resolved was substantially improved. Moreover, with improved sample loading and resolution, analysis of individual spots by immunoblotting and mass spectrometry revealed previously uncharacterised posttranscriptional modifications in a variety of chromatin proteins. CONCLUSIONS: While the optimised RB (oRB) is specific to the gels and analysis approach we use, our use of the Taguchi method should be generally applicable to a broad range of electrophoresis and analysis systems.