A multi-disciplinary team from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) has published online on January 12, 2014 in Nature Methods a first-of-its-kind technique to isolate mRNA from live cells in their natural tissue microenvironment without damaging nearby cells. This allows the researchers to analyze how cell-to-cell chemical connections influence individual cell function and overall protein production. Tissues, of course, are complex structures composed of various cell types. The identity and function of individual cells within each tissue type – heart, skin, brain, for example -- are closely linked by which genes are transcribed into mRNA, and ultimately proteins. To study gene expression in single cells in their natural tissue setting, researchers must be able to look at a cell's inner workings, much as an ecologist does when studying how an individual species interacts with its habitat. Even cells of seemingly the same type are not identical at the molecular level. Most knowledge about variability in gene expression has been from studies using heterogeneous groups of cells grown in culture. Researchers doubt the ability to extrapolate "real biology" from these unnatural conditions. Tools for investigating what type and how much RNA is present in single cells in intact tissue provide a unique opportunity to assess how mammalian cells really work and how that function may go awry in various diseases, and eventually in testing new drugs. James Eberwine, Ph.D., professor of Pharmacology, Perelman School of Medicine, and co-director of the Penn Genome Frontiers Institute (PGFI), and Ivan Dmochowski, Ph.D., associate professor of Chemistry, School of Arts and Sciences, co-directed this study. Other Penn co-authors include Jai-Yoon Sul, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pharmacology,and M.
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