Research Article

Real-time quantification of single RNA translation dynamics in living cells

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Science  17 Jun 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6292, pp. 1425-1429
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0899

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The when, where, and how of translation

High-resolution single-molecule imaging shows the spatial and temporal dynamics of molecular events (see the Perspective by Iwasaki and Ingolia). Wu et al. and Morisaki et al. developed an approach to study the translation of single messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in live cells. Nascent polypeptides containing multimerized epitopes were imaged with fluorescent antibody fragments, while simultaneously detecting the single mRNAs using a different fluorescent tag. The approach enabled a direct readout of initiation and elongation, as well as revealing the spatial distribution of translation and allowing the correlation of polysome motility with translation dynamics. Membrane-targeted mRNAs could be distinguished from cytoplasmic mRNAs, as could single polysomes from higher-order polysomal complexes. Furthermore, the work reveals the stochasticity of translation, which can occur constitutively or in bursts, much like transcription, and the spatial regulation of translation in neuronal dendrites.

Science, this issue p. 1430, p. 1425; see also p. 1391


Although messenger RNA (mRNA) translation is a fundamental biological process, it has never been imaged in real time in vivo with single-molecule precision. To achieve this, we developed nascent chain tracking (NCT), a technique that uses multi-epitope tags and antibody-based fluorescent probes to quantify protein synthesis dynamics at the single-mRNA level. NCT reveals an elongation rate of ~10 amino acids per second, with initiation occurring stochastically every ~30 seconds. Polysomes contain ~1 ribosome every 200 to 900 nucleotides and are globular rather than elongated in shape. By developing multicolor probes, we showed that most polysomes act independently; however, a small fraction (~5%) form complexes in which two distinct mRNAs can be translated simultaneously. The sensitivity and versatility of NCT make it a powerful new tool for quantifying mRNA translation kinetics.

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