Fluorescent imaging is all about the contrast between the signal and the background. For imaging to be successful, the signal should be clear above the background. Background fluorescence can come from free/non-specific fluorescent probe, autofluorescence, and out of focus fluorescence.
There are two major strategies to improve signal/background ratio.
The first is to increase the signal. We do that by choosing brighter fluorescent molecules, by increasing the number of fluorescent probes per target, by using more than one color per target, by having photoactivatable probes etc…
The second strategy is to reduce the background. The wash step in IF and FISH protocols is intended to remove excess, non-specific bound, probe. There are even more extensive wash protocols. We have many type of microscopes that are designed to reduce out-of-focus light (these include confocal, TIRF, multi-photon, and SPIM). In yeast imaging, we sometimes add an excess of adenine to the culture media, since many strains are defective in adenine biosynthesis, and accumulate a red intermediate molecule. In the field of single molecule live mRNA imaging, we usually add a nuclear localization signal (NLS) to the fluorescently tagged RNA binding protein, in order to reduce its cytoplasmic fluorescence.
Now, my lab-mate Bin Wu develop a system that he calls “Background free imaging of single mRNAs in live cells using split fluorescent proteins”.
The idea is to combine the two most common systems – the MS2 and the PP7 systems, so that the MS2 binding sequence (MBS) and PP7 binding sequence (PBS) will be in tandem. Then the MS2 coat protein (MCP) will be fused to one half of a fluorescent protein (Venus) and PCP will be tagged with the other half. Only when MCP-VenusN and PCP-VenusC are in very close proximity (e.g. bound to the MBS and PBS, respectively) the two halves can bind to form Venus, which fluoresce in bright green-yellow. Add 12 of these tandem repeats to the mRNA and you have 24 fluorescent proteins on the mRNA in the cytoplasm, with, theoretically, zero unbound fluorescent protein in the cytoplasm, hence “zero background”.
The system has some limitations. For one thing, the protein levels must be low, since the fluorescent protein halves can self-associate at high concentrations independent of interaction with the mRNA. Also, since it takes the fluorescent protein some time to mature, it is not useful to study short-lived mRNAs, or transcription in live cells, since by the time it matures, the mRNA has already left the nucleus.
Wu B, Chen J, & Singer RH (2014). Background free imaging of single mRNAs in live cells using split fluorescent proteins. Scientific reports, 4 PMID: 24402470