‘Swiss-army-knife’ molecule could help researchers assess how cells really work

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A multi-disciplinary team from the University of Pennsylvania have published in Nature Methods a first-of-its-kind way to isolate RNA from live cells in their natural tissue microenvironment without damaging nearby cells. This allows 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 RNA, 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.

Read the full, original article: Designer ‘swiss-army-knife’ molecule captures RNA in single cells in their natural tissue environment

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