Tag Archives: transcription

Transcription caught on camera part 2: Fab-ulous Histones

In eukaryotes, the DNA is packages tightly in nucleosomes, which are composed primarily out of histone proteins. There are four major types of histones (1,2,3 & 4). Extensive work has been done on how histones facilitate and regulate transcription. It turns out that there are multiple post-translational modifications on histones, such as methylation and acetylation that are linked to transcription regulation. The majority of the studies use a method called chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) to study these modifications. In essence, an antibody specific for a certain modification is used to affinity-purify only modified histones, along with any DNA region they are associated with. Thus, one could get a map of the specific modified histone along the chromosomes and correlate this locations with transcription activity, ChIP maps of other transcription related proteins etc…

There are two problems with this approach. The first, since the cells are fixed, the time resolution is limited to several minutes, at best. Second, the results are an average of the entire cell population, and therefore factors considered linked may not actually be present in the same cell, same genomic location at the same time.

So, Timothy Stasevich et al. tried a different approach by using a novel method to image histone modifications in live cells.

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Transcription caught on camera part 1: Halo transcription factors

Transcription factors (TFs) have a fundamental role is regulating gene expression. The basic model, based on numerous biochemical analyses, has determined where TFs bind (usually at specific sites at or near promoters), when they bind the DNA (at a resolution of minutes/hours) and what do they do there (induce/repress transcription. Duh!).  However, much is yet unknown. One aspect that is fairly unknown is the dynamics of how TFs search for their binding sites, bind them and later dissociate, particularly at the single molecule level. To explore this, the Transcription Imaging Consortium (TIC) at Janelia Research Center (JRC) (it used to be Janelia Farm, but the  “farm” part was removed from the name. oh well) applied sophisticated imaging techniques to measure the dynamics of two TFs, SOX2 and OCT4 in the nuclei of live embryonic stem (ES)cells. Their results were published in Cell almost a year ago.

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This month’s Nature methods (part 1): Spinach, blue transcription & photoacoustic imaging

This month’s Nature Methods issue has several interesting imaging items & articles, including two super-resolution reviews, two optogenetics articles, and more.

This post will be dedicated to three items in the “tools in brief” section.

Blue transcription

Optogenetics usually refers to control of ion flux via light sensitive channels. However, there are other light-responsive molecules. The item titles “Optimized optogenetic gene expression” describe a work from Kevin Gardner’s lab. They fused the transcription activating domain of the protein VP16 to the protein EL222. EL222 is a light-oxygen-voltage protein from the bacterium Erythrobacter litoralis. This protein binds to DNA when illuminated by blue light, and detaches from the DNA when the light is removed. Using this system, they could induce and repress transcription of a specific gene of interest (harboring a specific promoter recognized by EL222) in mammalian cells in tissue culture and in zebra-fish embryo. This can be a great tool.

Zebra fish egg and embryo harboring  an mCherry gene under the control of the VP-EL222 (or not) under dark or blue-light conditions. Source: Motta-Mena LB et al. (2014) Nat Chem. Biol. 10:196.

Zebra fish egg and embryo harboring an mCherry gene under the control of the VP-EL222 (or not) under dark or blue-light conditions. Source: Motta-Mena LB et al. (2014) Nat Chem. Biol. 10:196.

Photoacoustic imaging

Fluorescent molecules absorb light, and then emit light at a different wavelength. Photoacoustic molecules absorb light and emit sound waves. This is called the photoacoustic effect. This effect can be utilized to image inside whole animals, and the hope of the field is to get deep tissue penetration and a high resolution. The item titled “Activatable photoacoustic probes” presents a paper by the J. Roa’s lab at Stanford university. They developed a new polymer which absorbs at near-infrared (thus allowing good tissue penetration) and these produce a higher signal than commonly used materials for such imaging. They were also able for the first time to create a photoacoustic sensor of reactive oxygen species. This new field is very interesting and very exciting.


Spinach may deserve its own post, but briefly, Spinach and Spinach2 are RNA aptamers that can be used for the genetic encoding of fluorescent RNA. This aptamers form a unique structure which binds a specific molecule which then fluoresce. However, the optical properties of this dye were not suitable for common microscope filters. So now the group that developed Spinach developed several new dyes to enhance the fluorescent range of Spinach2.

The main problem I have with Spinach is that most of their work is based on an artificial RNA composed of 60 repeats of CGG trinucleotide and the ribosomal 5S rRNA. I haven’t followed the literature of Spinach much, but haven’t seen any single molecule imaging using Spinach. but, I guess I owe Spinach a post of its own.

ResearchBlogging.orgTools in brief (2014). Chemical biology: Optimized optogenetic gene expression Nature Methods, 11 (3), 230-230 DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2867
Tools in brief (2014). Sensors and probes: Expanding Spinach2’s spectral properties Nature Methods, 11 (3), 230-230 DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2865
Tools in brief (2014). Imaging: Activatable photoacoustic probes Nature Methods, 11 (3), 230-230 DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.2868
Pu K, Shuhendler AJ, Jokerst JV, Mei J, Gambhir SS, Bao Z, & Rao J (2014). Semiconducting polymer nanoparticles as photoacoustic molecular imaging probes in living mice. Nature nanotechnology PMID: 24463363
Motta-Mena LB, Reade A, Mallory MJ, Glantz S, Weiner OD, Lynch KW, & Gardner KH (2014). An optogenetic gene expression system with rapid activation and deactivation kinetics. Nature chemical biology, 10 (3), 196-202 PMID: 24413462
Song W, Strack RL, Svensen N, & Jaffrey SR (2014). Plug-and-Play Fluorophores Extend the Spectral Properties of Spinach. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 136 (4), 1198-201 PMID: 24393009
Strack RL, Disney MD, & Jaffrey SR (2013). A superfolding Spinach2 reveals the dynamic nature of trinucleotide repeat-containing RNA. Nature methods, 10 (12), 1219-24 PMID: 24162923

Looking at single mRNAs in neurons hints at memory formation

It is postulated that learning and memory are modulated by synaptic plasticity – molecular changes  that result in changes in the synapse morphology and signaling capacity. Local protein translation is considered important for synaptic plasticity. Two works from our lab were published last month (back to back!) in Science. Both papers deal with how beta-actin mRNA localization and dynamics in neurons may account for local protein translation upon stimulation, and hence, may supply insight into memory formation.

The first paper by Adina Buxbaum shows that beta-actin mRNAs in dendrites are “unmasked” upon activation of the dendrites. Using single molecule FISH, She noticed that the average number of probes bound to the mRNAs in dendrites (but not in adjacent glia cells) was lower than expects, and this number increased upon stimulation. Not only that, there were more mRNAs in the stimulated dendrites. This indicated masking by a protein “coating” that prevented FISH probe binding in the unstimulated cells. A modified FISH protocol which included a protease digestion step prior to probe hybridization showed that indeed the mRNAs were masked by proteins.

single molecule FISH for beta-actin mRNA in dendrites shows that mRNAs in unstimulated neurons are masked. A) Unstimulated neuron. B) stimulated neuron showing increased number of spots. C) Unstimulated neuron, in which the fixed cells were digested with protease prior to FISH probe hybridization. Source: Buxbaum, Wu & Singer (2014). Science Vol. 343  pp. 419-422

single molecule FISH for beta-actin mRNA in dendrites shows that mRNAs in unstimulated neurons are masked. A) Unstimulated neuron. B) stimulated neuron showing increased number of spots. C) Unstimulated neuron, in which the fixed cells were digested with protease prior to FISH probe hybridization. Source: Buxbaum, Wu & Singer (2014). Science Vol. 343 pp. 419-422


She further showed that this masking relates to other mRNAs, as well as to ribosomes, and that this is due to a metabolic process resulting from stimulation. Thus, this unmasking process may be a way to “activate” localized mRNAs for translation.

Apart from being a very neat paper technically and biologically, I think it was exceptionally entertaining to begin her paper by quoting an 1894 work by Cajal, the father of neuroscience.

The second paper by Hye-Yoon Park follows the dynamics of single molecule endogenous beta-actin mRNAs in neurons by live imaging, using the MS2 system. She shows movement of mRNAs along dendrites, as well as some events of merging or splitting – suggesting that some mRNAs are packed together in larger granules – which may regulate local translation. She also looked at brain slices, visualizing beta actin transcription dynamics. This is an important achievement since it is much harder to look at mRNA dynamics in tissue slices than in single cells on plate, due to background fluorescence. Though some biological insight is derived here, this is more of a “new technology” report.

Live imaging of beta-actin mRNAs in dendrites (movie. Source: Park HY et al. (2014) Science Vol. 343 pp. 422-424)

These papers are just the beginning of a long-term story of how mRNA localization and local translation are regulated in neurons.  A lot of cool experiments are being done in our lab in this regard and I’ll report more as they are published.

ResearchBlogging.orgBuxbaum AR, Wu B, & Singer RH (2014). Single β-actin mRNA detection in neurons reveals a mechanism for regulating its translatability. Science (New York, N.Y.), 343 (6169), 419-22 PMID: 24458642
Park HY, Lim H, Yoon YJ, Follenzi A, Nwokafor C, Lopez-Jones M, Meng X, & Singer RH (2014). Visualization of dynamics of single endogenous mRNA labeled in live mouse. Science (New York, N.Y.), 343 (6169), 422-4 PMID: 24458643

FISEB 2014 – day 3

Not a lot to say. The morning session on “life science policy & research funding in Israel” was somewhat informative, but too much policy discussion and not a lot of practical info.

Next was the oral poster session on genomic and transcriptomic regulation.  Can’t discuss it much since most is unpublished work. But most lectures were interesting. My lecture was very successful. Got a lot of interest. Am happy about it.

The last session was actually a panel of university presidents/rectors etc with us – the postdocs that were invited, as the next generation of young faculty members.

It was a very nice gesture but again, I was hoping for a more practical meeting. They did share some good advice on some subjects.

After that was the poster session. Very interesting work by Roee Amit from Technion on transcription imaging in bacteria. Not ready for publication yet but stay tuned. As usual, the lab of Yaron Shav-tal produces nice imaging on transcription. They are also developing something nice with the MS2 system which caused me to say “me wants” immediately. Again, can’t discuss till its published.

In the last post, I forgot to mention the plenary lecture of David Bartel. Quite insightful about miRNAs and poly-A tails. I should go read some of his latest papers.

FISEB 2014 meeting -day 1

FISEB meeting happens every three years, and it includes participants from 28 different experimental biology societies in Israel. It is the best meeting to learn about biological-medical research performed in Israel at all fields and doctrines.

4 days, 8-10 parallel sessions, hundreds of lectures, >1000 posters, >2200 participants.

The first day started by a plenary lecture by Aryeh Warshel, Nobel lauret. He is really far from my field, and his lecture was very much confusing to me. But he has nice cartoons 🙂 The bottom line – enzymes are able to catalyze reactions due to electrostatic connections that are maintained stable (unlike in water).

From the afternoon sessions, I chose “signaling pathways & networks”. Relevant to this blog:

Yoav Henis from Tel-Aviv Uni. talked about oligomerization of TGF-beta receptors. he used a method he calls “co-patching”, which is essentially IF with two different antibodies for two receptor subunits. homodimerization will yield single color “patch” whereas heterodimerization will yield an overlap of both colors (co-patch). He then looked at the % of co-patch with different receptor subunits with/without ligand, or with mutants.

Maya Schulinder from Weizmann Institute talked about the contacts between mitochondria and other organelles (ER, vacuole) in yeast. These contacts are important for lipid metabolism. She new about the mito-ER contact but found there must be a second contact (bypass mechanism). She used an interesting screen method to find the bypass mechanism to the mito-ER contact: she expressed one of the contact protein as a GFP fusion. She expected that if the bypass mechanism and the mito-ER contact “share the load” of lipid metabolism, then deletion of the bypass will increase the number of the mito-ER contacts to compensate. Using automation, she imaged 6200 deletion mutants (from the yeast deletion library) each expressing this GFP fusion. As expected, she found 4 candidates which turned out to be very interesting.

Roni Seger from Weizmann showed that targeting the nuclear localization signal of ERK can be a novel cure for certain pathologies, including certain types of cancer.

On the other hand, Maya Zigler from the Hebrew Uni. suggested another new idea to cure cancer – by inducing the surrounding immune cells to destroy the tumor.

Ido Amit from Weizmann as well told us that we may not really know all the different types of cells that exist. What most people do, particularly in immunology, is rely on one or two known “markers” and use FACS or other methods to sort the cells based on these markers. However, some of the markers overlap. and there may be cells for which we do not have any markers and they “disappear” in the crowd of unsorted cells. or, the could be further sub-types we do not know about. So he approached the problem in an unbiased way – he took all the cells in the spleen, and did single cell RNA seq to individual cells from the spleen. Thus, each cell type has several hundred/thousand “markers” based on gene expression profiles. Not only did this method agree with the common FACS sorting markers, but he identified several sub-types unknown before.  Expect his paper this month in Science. His paper just got published in Science.

Finally, Yaron Shav-tal from Bar-Ilan Uni. used the MS2 system to study how perturbing the signaling pathway of serum stimulation affects transcription of beta-actin gene. As per usual – very neat job and interesting results.

Don’t eat this FISH-STIC

single molecule FISH (smFISH) is a great way to detect single RNA molecules in fixed cells. The “traditional” FISH uses fluorescently labeled oligonucleotides which directly hybridize with the target RNA sequence. The two most common approaches are the use of 1-5 50-mer oligos, that are labeled with 5 fluorophores, or the use of more than 20 20-mer oligos labeled at one or both ends.
A more recent approach is nicknamed “Christmas tree”, in which 2-3 rounds of hybridizations are done, with only the last round uses fluorescently labeled probed. I’ve expanded on that when I discussed RNAScope.  Other people have independently developed similar protocols (e.g. branched DNA FISH (bDNA), which was recently used to get smFISH transcriptomics in human cells).

Now, a new paper came out with a very similar method whish they call FISH-STIC (Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization with Sequential Tethered and Intertwined ODN Complexes).

However, their images do not compare to the quality shown by the RNAScope or bDNA papers. Maybe its just bad imaging and not the FISH itself, but their images look blurry and doesn’t seem to be up to modern FISH standards. I used 20-mer FISH and can get nicer images.

They also get a few high-intensity spots which the call “mRNA-independent” (since they can also see it outside the cell). To me it means that their protocol was just not optimized – either the washes, or the oligo sequences which should not make complexes like that.

They also seem to have higher background fluorescence compared to RNAScope.

Simultaneous detection of Actb and Actg mRNAs with FISH STIC probes. Source: Sinnamon & Czaplinski (2014) RNA 20:260-266.

Simultaneous detection of Actb and Actg mRNAs with FISH STIC probes. Source: Sinnamon & Czaplinski (2014) RNA 20:260-266.

On the other hand, their beta-actin FISH-STIC looks better than the RNAScope-FISH. beta-actin mRNA is found in 500-2000 copies per cell, so it is not easy to get smFISH. Still, 20-mer FISH that I do looks better than both.

20-mer FISH for beta-actin mRNA in immortalized MEFs. Source: myself.

20-mer FISH for beta-actin mRNA in immortalized MEFs. Source: myself.

Notice also in my image the transcription sites (TS) are clrearly visible, whereas I did not see any TS in their images, which is weird (unless they chose cells without TS on purpose. Don’t know why, since smFISH is a powerful tool to quantify transcription 1, 2).

They did not test FISH-STIC on a less prevalent mRNA, so I cannot comment on how it would look like compared to RNAScope or 20-mer FISH.

Anyway, the methods seem similar, but I think that the RNAScope demonstrates better results than the FISH-STIC. However, I haven’t tried this approach myself. I continue to do FISH with 20-mer probes and so far pleased with my results.

ResearchBlogging.orgSinnamon JR, & Czaplinski K (2014). RNA detection in situ with FISH-STICs. RNA (New York, N.Y.), 20, 260-266 PMID: 24345395
Battich N, Stoeger T, & Pelkmans L (2013). Image-based transcriptomics in thousands of single human cells at single-molecule resolution. Nature methods, 10 (11), 1127-33 PMID: 24097269