Research Article

Three-dimensional intact-tissue sequencing of single-cell transcriptional states

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Science  27 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6400, eaat5691
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat5691

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Transcriptome mapping in the 3D brain

RNA sequencing samples the entire transcriptome but lacks anatomical information. In situ hybridization, on the other hand, can only profile a small number of transcripts. In situ sequencing technologies address these shortcomings but face a challenge in dense, complex tissue environments. Wang et al. combined an efficient sequencing approach with hydrogel-tissue chemistry to develop a multidisciplinary technology for three-dimensional (3D) intact-tissue RNA sequencing (see the Perspective by Knöpfel). More than 1000 genes were simultaneously mapped in sections of mouse brain at single-cell resolution to define cell types and circuit states and to reveal cell organization principles.

Science, this issue p. eaat5691; see also p. 328

Structured Abstract


Single-cell RNA sequencing has demonstrated that both stable cell types and transient cell states can be discovered and defined by transcriptomes. In situ transcriptomic methods can map both RNA quantity and position; however, it remains challenging to simultaneously satisfy key technological requirements such as efficiency, signal intensity, accuracy, scalability to large gene numbers, and applicability to three-dimensional (3D) volumes. Well-established single-molecule fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) approaches (such as MERFISH and seqFISH) have high detection efficiency but require long RNA species (more than 1000 nucelotides) and yield lower intensity than that of enzymatic amplification methods (tens versus thousands of fluorophores per RNA molecule). Other pioneering in situ sequencing methods (via padlock probes and fluorescent in situ sequencing) use enzymatic amplification, thus achieving high intensity but with room to improve on efficiency.


We have developed, validated, and applied STARmap (spatially-resolved transcript amplicon readout mapping). STARmap begins with labeling of cellular RNAs by pairs of DNA probes followed by enzymatic amplification so as to produce a DNA nanoball (amplicon), which eliminates background caused by mislabeling of single probes. Tissue can then be transformed into a 3D hydrogel DNA chip by anchoring DNA amplicons via an in situ–synthesized polymer network and removing proteins and lipids. This form of hydrogel-tissue chemistry replots amplicons onto an optically transparent hydrogel coordinate system; then, to identify and quantify RNA species-abundance manifested by DNA amplicons, the identity of each species is encoded as a five-base barcode and read out by means of an in situ sequencing method that decodes DNA sequence in multicolor fluorescence. Using a new two-base sequencing scheme (SEDAL), STARmap was found to simultaneously detect more than 1000 genes over six imaging cycles, in which sequencing errors in any cycle cause misdecoding and are effectively rejected.


We began by (i) detecting and quantifying a focused 160-gene set (including cell type markers and activity-regulated genes) simultaneously in mouse primary visual cortex; (ii) clustering resulting per-cell gene expression patterns into a dozen distinct inhibitory, excitatory, and non-neuronal cell types; and (iii) mapping the spatial distribution of all of these cell types across layers of cortex. For validation, per-cell-type gene expression was found to correlate well both with in situ hybridization results and with single-cell RNA sequencing, and widespread up-regulation of activity-regulated genes was observed in response to visual stimulation. We next applied STARmap to a higher cognitive area (the medial prefrontal cortex) and discovered a more complex distribution of cell types. Last, we extended STARmap to much larger numbers of genes and spatial scales; we measured 1020 genes simultaneously in sections—obtaining results concordant with the 160-gene set—and measured 28 genes across millimeter-scale volumes encompassing ~30,000 cells, revealing 3D patterning principles that jointly characterize a broad and diverse spectrum of cell types.


STARmap combines hydrogel-tissue chemistry and in situ DNA sequencing to achieve intact-tissue single-cell measurement of expression of more than a thousand genes. In the future, combining this intact-system gene expression measurement with complementary cellular-resolution methodologies (with which STARmap is designed to be compatible)—including in vivo activity recording, optogenetic causal tests, and anatomical connectivity in the same cells—will help bridge molecular, cellular, and circuit scales of neuroscience.

STARmap for 3D transcriptome imaging and molecular cell typing.

STARmap is an in situ RNA-sequencing technology that transforms intact tissue into a 3D hydrogel-tissue hybrid and measures spatially resolved single-cell transcriptomes in situ. Error- and background-reduction mechanisms are implemented at multiple layers, enabling precise RNA quantification, spatially resolved cell typing, scalability to large gene numbers, and 3D mapping of tissue architecture.


Retrieving high-content gene-expression information while retaining three-dimensional (3D) positional anatomy at cellular resolution has been difficult, limiting integrative understanding of structure and function in complex biological tissues. We developed and applied a technology for 3D intact-tissue RNA sequencing, termed STARmap (spatially-resolved transcript amplicon readout mapping), which integrates hydrogel-tissue chemistry, targeted signal amplification, and in situ sequencing. The capabilities of STARmap were tested by mapping 160 to 1020 genes simultaneously in sections of mouse brain at single-cell resolution with high efficiency, accuracy, and reproducibility. Moving to thick tissue blocks, we observed a molecularly defined gradient distribution of excitatory-neuron subtypes across cubic millimeter–scale volumes (>30,000 cells) and a short-range 3D self-clustering in many inhibitory-neuron subtypes that could be identified and described with 3D STARmap.

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