Xie's new assay addresses all three limitations. He and his colleagues melded a yellow fluorescent protein called Venus with Tsr, a hydrophobic membrane protein. The inclusion of the Tsr domain serves to anchor the fused protein to a cell's membrane, sidestepping the longstanding difficulty of imaging single proteins zipping about in cell cytoplasm, where diffuse fluorescent signals tend to be overwhelmed by background noise.
The gene coding for this combined protein was substituted for the well-studied lacZ gene in the Escherichia coli chromosome. When lacZ's regulatory machinery allows the modified gene to be converted into a handful of protein molecules, these Tsr-Venus hybrids migrate to the cell membrane, where each attaches firmly. The clearly visible flash from each Tsr-Venus molecule -- which when viewed across a population of cells looks somewhat akin to a sea of cellular paparazzi -- serves as an indication of that single protein molecule's production.
"Dr. Xie's experiments are the first to obtain quantitative, real-time information on protein expression in living cells at the single-molecule level," says Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which funded the work in part. "His imaging methods open up new possibilities for addressing fundamental questions about the precise events and factors involved in regulating these essential processes. This is exactly the sort of highly innovative research with broad applicability that the National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award was created to suppor