Monitoring Gene Activity Across Thousands of Cells Sure Is Pretty

By Jamie Condliffe on at

Scientists have developed a new technique which allows them to visualise gene activity in thousands of cells, simultaneously. That will allow them to understand how our cells function like never before—and it looks damn pretty, too.

While scientists have been able to measure gene activity in cells for a long ol' time, until now the techniques which they use have been limited in both time and space, which has in turn limited the number of cells they can study at once. Now, though, a team from the University of Zurich has developed a technique which allows them to perform parallel measurement of the amount and spatial organisation of genes in tens of thousands of single cells, simultaneously. explains:

The method developed by Pelkmans' PhD students Nico Battich and Thomas Stoeger is based upon the combination of robots, an automated fluorescence microscope and a supercomputer. "When genes become active, specific transcript molecules are produced. We can stain them with the help of a robot", explains Stoeger. Subsequently, fluorescence microscope images of brightly glowing transcript molecules are generated. Those images were analyzed with the supercomputer Brutus, of the ETH Zurich. With this method, one thousand human genes can be studied in ten thousand single cells.

The image above shows off the technique, used on HeLa cells, to identify gene activity. Different colours represent the main types of mRNA localization patterns found in the HeLa cells. The scientists believe the technique will allow them understand cancer activity across entire tumours with unprecedented accuracy—so it's not just a pretty face. [Nature Methods via PhysOrg]