Biologists of the University of Zurich have developed a method to visualize the activity of genes in single cells. The method is so efficient that, for the first time, a thousand genes can be studied in parallel in ten thousand single human cells. Applications lie in fields of basic research and medical diagnostics. The new method shows that the activity of genes and the spatial organization of the resulting transcript molecules, strongly vary between single cells. Whenever cells activate a gene, they produce gene-specific transcript molecules, which make the function of the gene available to the cell. The measurement of gene activity is a routine activity in medical diagnostics, especially in cancer medicine. Today's technologies determine the activity of genes by measuring the amount of transcript molecules. However, these technologies can neither measure the amount of transcript molecules of one thousand genes in ten thousand single cells, nor the spatial organization of transcript molecules within a single cell. The fully automated procedure, developed by biologists of the University of Zurich under the supervision of Professor Lucas Pelkmans, allows, for the first time, a parallel measurement of the amount and spatial organization of single transcript molecules in ten thousands single cells. The results, which were published online on October 6, 2013 in Nature Methods, provide completely novel insights into the variability of gene activity of single cells. The method developed by Dr. Pelkmans' Ph.D. 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.
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