Single-molecule imaging of gene regulation in vivo using cotranslational activation by cleavage (CoTrAC)

Zach Hensel, Xiaona Fang, Jie Xiao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We describe a fluorescence microscopy method, Co-Translational Activation by Cleavage (CoTrAC) to image the production of protein molecules in live cells with single-molecule precision without perturbing the protein's functionality. This method makes it possible to count the numbers of protein molecules produced in one cell during sequential, five-minute time windows. It requires a fluorescence microscope with laser excitation power density of ~0.5 to 1 kW/cm2, which is sufficiently sensitive to detect single fluorescent protein molecules in live cells. The fluorescent reporter used in this method consists of three parts: a membrane targeting sequence, a fast-maturing, yellow fluorescent protein and a protease recognition sequence. The reporter is translationally fused to the N-terminus of a protein of interest. Cells are grown on a temperature-controlled microscope stage. Every five minutes, fluorescent molecules within cells are imaged (and later counted by analyzing fluorescence images) and subsequently photobleached so that only newly translated proteins are counted in the next measurement. Fluorescence images resulting from this method can be analyzed by detecting fluorescent spots in each image, assigning them to individual cells and then assigning cells to cell lineages. The number of proteins produced within a time window in a given cell is calculated by dividing the integrated fluorescence intensity of spots by the average intensity of single fluorescent molecules. We used this method to measure expression levels in the range of 0-45 molecules in single 5 min time windows. This method enabled us to measure noise in the expression of the λ repressor CI, and has many other potential applications in systems biology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e50042
JournalJournal of Visualized Experiments
Issue number73
StatePublished - 2013


  • Biochemistry
  • Biophysics
  • Cell culture
  • Cellular biology
  • Chemistry
  • CoTrAC
  • Cotranslational activation
  • Fluorescence protein
  • Fluorescent microscopy
  • Genetics
  • Imaging
  • Issue 73
  • Microbiology
  • Molecular biology
  • Protein expression
  • Proteins
  • Single molecule
  • Systems biology
  • Translational activation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Chemical Engineering(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)


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