One molecule, one cell – live

September 9, 2013

Traditionally single-molecule experiments are performed in vitro and therefore in a reduced environment. Recently, it has become possible to combine this single-molecular accuracy with a living single cell and to observe what happens in real time (“live”). For biologists the combination of these three technological ideas creates a lot of possibilities to answer a number of currently unanswered questions. I am very happy to be able to be part of this adventure. In the following I would like to address some aspects of my work:

What am I doing?

Currently I am working on the intriguing and big question how cells translate their DNA into protein. Interestingly, many important sub-questions of this problem still remain unanswered, especially when focusing on the fate of mRNA molecules once they have left the nucleus and are present in the cytoplasm. The quantification of the translation process in time and space, characterization of its steps and major molecular players is our focus area. In order to elucidate what happens to mRNAs in the cellular context we mark them with fluorescent proteins and apply single- and live-cell imaging. In addition, new labeling and detecting technologies allow to study mRNAs at the single-molecular level.

Why study translation live and in single cells?

The so-called central dogma of biology, namely the conversion of information stored in the DNA into proteins, has been dissected by a large number of scientists. However, in most traditional approaches the mRNAs as the central information carriers are isolated from large numbers of cells and therefore removed from their natural cellular context. This results in functional deficits and loss of spatio-temporal information (“Why is this mRNA at this place in this cell at this time?”). In contrast, the combination of single- and live-cell imaging allows to study the fate of mRNAs during translation in their physiologic environment, over a longer period of time and with a minimum of disturbing factors. The use of only single cells also allows to detect differences between cells of the same kind (for example neurons or muscle cells). An organ represents a very heterogeneous environment, so cells have to be different in order to be able to adapt to their local environment. Even 150 years ago Charles Darwin already noted that observable traits can vary widely within a species. Why couldn’t this also be the case for individual cells?

Why single-molecular accuracy?

Next to the advantages that live single-cell analysis has to offer, it is important to keep in mind that most biological processes can be reduced to the level of molecules. When, however, a larger number of molecules is observed (even within a single cell) this automatically leads to an averaging effect. A complicated biological process, like the mRNA translation into protein, involving a number of molecules during specific stages might therefore only be recognized as single event with a “before” and “after” without knowing what really happened in between. By visualizing single molecules it becomes possible to track their role as a puzzle piece within the big picture.

Nice. And how is this done?

There are two major tools. The first one is a microscope (more specific: a light microscope called confocal spinning disc microscope) to observe the single cell with its mRNA molecules. However, the resolution of a light microscope is limited to about 220 nm (1 nm = 1 m / 1,000,000,000). Even though a RNA molecule might be longer, it is also about 1,000 times thinner and therefore not detectable. In order to be able to still detect them we label them with fluorescent proteins. The emitted light results in a so-called “diffraction limited spot” which can be detected by the cameras of our microscope. For the RNA labeling we apply the MS2 and PP7 systems which use specific bacteriophage proteins that are again fused to fluorescent proteins and can bind to specific regions within the mRNA molecule of interest. Importantly, the MS2/PP7 labeling does not harm the biological processes within the observed cell. With this system it is also possible to label a single mRNA molecule in two colors (for example red and green). During the mRNA translation process different parts of the mRNA are targeted by the translation machinery in a sequential manner which has an influence on the binding of the green and red proteins. The appearance of both colors at the same time (yellow), first green and then red, or the other way around, the speed at which this change occurs, and the location within the cell can tell us a lot about the translation process.

In case I could spark your interest for single-molecule live cell imaging please also see our website or check out the following three articles on mRNA labeling and detection:

  1. Hocine et al., Single-molecule analysis of gene expression using two-color RNA labeling in live yeast. Nat Methods. 2013 Feb;10(2):119-21.
  2. Wu et al., Fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy enables quantitative imaging of single mRNAs in living cells. Biophys J. 2012 Jun 20;102(12):2936-44.
  3. Larson et al., Real-time observation of transcription initiation and elongation on an endogenous yeast gene. Science. 2011 Apr 22;332(6028):475-8.

More on

  • the Spinning-disc microscope
  • the MS2 and PP7 labeling systems
  • and “diffraction limited spots”

will follow later.


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