New technique allows researchers to see gene activity in single cells in a living animal for the first time

Novel method will allow biologists to pinpoint how random chance affects cancer, aging
Drs. Roger Brent (left) and Alexander Mendenhall
Fred Hutch researchers Drs. Roger Brent (left) and Alexander Mendenhall have developed a technique to measure carefully, for the first time, gene activity within single cells in a live, adult animal. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

SEATTLE – May 6, 2015 – For the first time, researchers can see and reliably measure how genes turn on and off in individual cells in a living animal — and they can track that gene activity through the animal’s entire life.

This new technique, described in a paper published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, will allow researchers to explore heretofore unanswered questions about the role of random variation in cancer and aging, said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center molecular biologist Roger Brent, Ph.D., who led the study.

“You’re born with some genetic constellation, and then things that happen to you during your life due to the influence of your environment also predispose you to cancer — or not,” Brent said. “And there’s this other stuff. Even [animals] that are genetically identical in the exact same environment come out differently. It’s that third component that this work is aimed at.”

Brent, Fred Hutch postdoctoral fellow Alexander Mendenhall, Ph.D., and their colleagues developed a method that uses a fluorescent protein to visualize activity of single genes in every cell of the intestinal tract of the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. This is the first time a gene’s activity has been reproducibly measured in individual cells in a living adult animal, and now that the researchers have demonstrated their technique, it can be used for other genes or other organs, Mendenhall said.

More on Brent and Mendenhall’s findings can be found here.


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Michael Nank