The Color Code That Brain Cell ‘Daughters’ Inherit

A new way to color-mark individual brain cells could help improve our understanding of how the brain works.

For neuroscience researchers, it is technically challenging to individually label cells and to track them over space or time. Our brain has billions of cells and to be able to distinguish them at the single-cell level, and to modify their activity, is crucial to understand such a complex organ.

The new marking technique, known as multicolor RGB tracking, encodes single cells with a heritable color mark generated by a random combination of the three basic colors- red, green, and blue.

Brains are injected with a solution containing three viral vectors, each producing one fluorescent protein in each of the three colors.

Watermarking Cells

Each individual cell will take on a combination of the three colors to acquire a characteristic watermark. This approach lets researchers color code cells that would otherwise not be visible or distinguishable from each other.

Once the cell has been marked, the mark integrates into the DNA and will be expressed forever in that cell, as well as in any daughter cells.

Study leader Diego Gomez-Nicola, a lecturer and fellow in the Centre for Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton, said:

“With this technique, we have proved the effective spatial and temporal tracking of neural cells, as well as the analysis of cell progeny.

We predict that the use of multicolor RGB tracking will have an impact on how neuroscientists around the world design their experiments. It will allow them to answer questions they were unable to tackle before and contribute to the progress of understanding how our brain works.”

For the researchers, the next step is to change the physiology or identity of certain cells by driving multiple genetic modification of genes of interest with the RGB vectors.

In the same way they made cells express fluorescent proteins, researchers hope they can change the cell expression of target genes, which would underpin gene therapy-based therapeutic approaches.

Diego Gomez-Nicola, Kristoffer Riecken, Boris Fehse & V. Hugh Perry
In-vivo RGB marking and multicolour single-cell tracking in the adult brain
Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 7520 doi:10.1038/srep07520

Photo: Thomas Hawk/flickr