Penn Science Spotlight: Manipulating gene expression in single cells

One goal of PSPG is to make science more accessible to the general public. Our first science spotlight features work by Matt Churgin and the Fang-Yen lab.

Scientists who want to understand how specific genes function in specific cells need the ability to manipulate gene expression, but there are few tools that allow us to ask questions at the single cell level. At best these tools can target populations of cells, but that’s not good enough for the developmental biologist who wants to know the fate of a particular cell within an embryo. A recent study out of Penn (Churgin et al. Genes Genomes Genetics, 2013) addresses these limitations by improving on a method that relies on heat-inducible gene expression and a continuous wave laser. This type of laser constantly bombards the specimen with heat and tends to warm up not just the target cell but the cells around it, causing the gene of interest to be expressed in the wrong place. To address this problem the authors used a pulsed infrared laser that heats up only the target cell, setting the stage for single cell experiments. The authors then demonstrated that they could use this to temporarily induce the expression of green fluorescent protein (GFP) in one specific cell. They then took it a step further and showed that they could induce permanent expression of GFP that could be passed down to daughter cells. This new technique will allow scientists to have greater spatial (which cell?) and temporal (when and how long?) control over gene expression. This will help answer questions such as how the fate of cells is genetically controlled during development.

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