Single molecule biophysics in living cells

Current research:

Binding of a transcription factor to a regulatory sequence on DNA is the first step in gene expression, accompanied by binding of different cofactors and enzymes, assembly of the transcription complex and final read-out of the genetic information stored in genomic DNA. Interestingly, the interactions between initiating factors and DNA are short-lived and stochastic. This raises questions about the temporal coordination between binding events as well as the coupling between transcription factor binding and the onset of transcription:


How does the cell carry forward the information of a first binding event to eventual expression of a gene?

How do cofactors influence the temporal sequence?

Does binding of a transcription factor initiate an independently running process, or is continuous transcription accompanied by repeated transcription factor binding?

We approach these intriguing questions by following individual biomolecules involved in gene expression in their natural environment of a living cell and study their temporal interplay with other components of transcription using multi color single molecule fluorescence microscopy.

Published projects:

→ Chromatin Architecture

Nuclear myosin VI regulates the spatial organization of mammalian transcription initiation

During transcription, RNA Polymerase II (RNAPII) is spatially organised within the nucleus into clusters that correlate with transcription activity. While this is a hallmark of genome regulation in mammalian cells, the mechanisms concerning the assembly, organisation and stability which underpin the function these transcription factories remain unknown. Here, we have used combination of single molecule imaging and genomic approaches to explore the role of nuclear myosin VI in the nanoscale organisation of RNAPII. We reveal that myosin VI acts as the molecular anchor that holds RNAPII into transcription factories. Perturbation of myosin VI leads to the disruption of RNAPII localisation, changes in chromatin organisation and subsequently a decrease in gene expression. Overall, we uncover the fundamental role of myosin VI in the spatial regulation of gene expression during the rapid response to changes in the cellular environment.

Myosin VI moves on nuclear actin filaments and supports long-range chromatin rearrangements

Nuclear myosin VI (MVI) enhances RNA polymerase II – dependent transcription, but the molecular mechanism is unclear. We used live cell single molecule tracking to follow individual MVI molecules inside the nucleus and observed micrometer-long motion of the motor. Besides static chromatin interactions lasting for tens of seconds, ATPase-dependent directed motion occurred with a velocity of 2 µm/s. The movement was frequently interrupted by short periods of slow restricted diffusion and increased in frequency upon stimulation of transcription. Mutagenesis and perturbation experiments demonstrated that nuclear MVI motion is independent of dimerization and occurs on nuclear actin filaments, which we also observed by two-color imaging. Using chromosome paint to quantify distances between chromosomes, we found that MVI is required for transcription-dependent long-range chromatin rearrangements. Our measurements reveal a transcription-coupled function of MVI in the nucleus, where it actively undergoes directed movement along nuclear actin filaments. Motion is potentially mediated by cooperating monomeric motors and might assist in enhancing transcription by supporting long-range chromatin rearrangements.

Mitotic chromosome binding predicts transcription factor properties in interphase

Mammalian transcription factors (TFs) differ broadly in their nuclear mobility and sequence- specific/non-specific DNA binding. How these properties affect their ability to occupy specific genomic sites and modify the epigenetic landscape is unclear. The association of TFs with mitotic chromosomes observed by fluorescence microscopy is largely mediated by non-specific DNA interactions and differs broadly between TFs. Here we combine quantitative measure- ments of mitotic chromosome binding (MCB) of 501 TFs, TF mobility measurements by fluorescence recovery after photobleaching, single molecule imaging of DNA binding, and mapping of TF binding and chromatin accessibility. TFs associating to mitotic chromosomes are enriched in DNA-rich compartments in interphase and display slower mobility in interphase and mitosis. Remarkably, MCB correlates with relative TF on-rates and genome-wide specific site occupancy, but not with TF residence times. This suggests that non-specific DNA binding properties of TFs regulate their search efficiency and occupancy of specific genomic sites.


Endonuclease G promotes mitochondrial genome cleavage and replication

Endonuclease G (EndoG) is a nuclear-encoded endonuclease, mostly localised in mitochondria. In the nucleus EndoG participates in site-specific cleavage during replication stress and genome-wide DNA degradation during apoptosis. However, the impact of EndoG on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) metabolism is poorly understood. Here, we investigated whether EndoG is involved in the regulation of mtDNA replication and removal of aberrant copies. We applied the single-cell mitochondrial Transcription and Replication Imaging Protocol (mTRIP) and PCR-based strategies on human cells after knockdown/knockout and re-expression of EndoG. Our analysis revealed that EndoG stimulates both mtDNA replication initiation and mtDNA depletion, the two events being interlinked and dependent on EndoG’s nuclease activity. Stimulation of mtDNA replication by EndoG was independent of 7S DNA processing at the replication origin. Importantly, both mtDNA-directed activities of EndoG were promoted by oxidative stress. Inhibition of base excision repair (BER) that repairs oxidative stress- induced DNA damage unveiled a pronounced effect of EndoG on mtDNA removal, reminiscent of recently discovered links between EndoG and BER in the nucleus. Altogether with the downstream effects on mitochondrial transcription, protein expression, redox status and morphology, this study demonstrates that removal of damaged mtDNA by EndoG and compensatory replication play a critical role in mitochondria homeostasis.

Cell-cycle-dependent interactions between CTCF and Chromatin

The three-dimensional arrangement of chromatin encodes regulatory traits important for nuclear processes such as transcription and replication. Chromatin topology is in part mediated by the architectural protein CCCTC-binding factor (CTCF) that binds to the boundaries of topologically associating domains. Whereas sites of CTCF interactions are well characterized, little is known on how long CTCF binds to chromatin and how binding evolves during the cell cycle. We monitored CTCF-chromatin interactions by live cell single molecule tracking in different phases of the cell cycle. In G1-, S-, and G2-phases, a majority of CTCF molecules was bound transiently (∼0.2 s) to chromatin, whereas minor fractions were bound dynamically (∼4 s) or stably (>15 min). During mitosis, CTCF was mostly excluded from chromatin. Our data suggest that CTCF scans DNA in search for two different subsets of specific target sites and provide information on the timescales over which topologically associating domains might be restructured. During S-phase, dynamic and stable interactions decreased considerably compared to G1-phase, but were resumed in G2-phase, indicating that specific interactions need to be dissolved for replication to proceed.
Biophysical Journal 112, 1-5, May 23, 2017

→ Transcription Regulation

Transcription factor residence time dominates over concentration in transcription activation

Transcription is a vital process activated by transcription factor (TF) binding. The active gene releases a burst of transcripts before turning inactive again. While the basic course of transcription is well understood, it is unclear how binding of a TF affects the frequency, duration and size of a transcriptional burst. We systematically varied the residence time and concentration of a synthetic TF and characterized the transcription of a reporter gene by combining single molecule imaging, single molecule RNA-FISH, live transcript visualisation and analysis with a novel algorithm, Burst Inference from mRNA Distributions (BIRD). For this well-defined system, we found that TF binding solely affected burst frequency and variations in TF residence time had a stronger influence than variations in concentration. This enabled us to device a model of gene transcription, in which TF binding triggers multiple successive steps before the gene transits to the active state and actual mRNA synthesis is decoupled from TF presence. We quantified all transition times of the TF and the gene, including the TF search time and the delay between TF binding and the onset of transcription. Our quantitative measurements and analysis revealed detailed kinetic insight, which may serve as basis for a bottom-up understanding of gene regulation.

Single-molecule imaging of the transcription factor SRF reveals prolonged chromatin-binding kinetics upon cell stimulation

Serum response factor (SRF) mediates immediate early gene (IEG) and cytoskeletal gene expression programs in almost any cell type. So far, SRF transcriptional dynamics have not been investigated at single-molecule resolution. We provide a study of single Halo-tagged SRF molecules in fibroblasts and primary neurons. In both cell types, individual binding events of SRF molecules segregated into three chromatin residence time regimes, short, intermediate, and long binding, indicating a cell type-independent SRF property. The chromatin residence time of the long bound fraction was up to 1 min in quiescent cells and significantly increased upon stimulation. Stimulation also enhanced the long bound SRF fraction at specific timepoints (20 and 60 min) in both cell types. These peaks correlated with activation of the SRF cofactors MRTF-A and MRTF-B (myocardin-related transcription factors). Interference with signaling pathways and cofactors demonstrated modulation of SRF chromatin occupancy by actin signaling, MAP kinases, and MRTFs.

Transcription factor target site search and occupation in a background of unspecific sites

Response time and transcription level are vital parameters of gene regulation. They depend on how fast transcription factors (TFs) find and how efficient they occupy their specific target sites. It is well known that target site search is accelerated by TF binding to and sliding along unspecific DNA and that unspe- cific associations alter the occupation frequency of a gene. However, whether target site search time and occupation frequency can be optimized simultaneously is mostly unclear. We developed a transparent and intuitively accessible state-based formalism to calculate search times to target sites on and occupa- tion frequencies of promoters of arbitrary state structure. Our formalism is based on dissociation rate constants experimentally accessible in live cell experiments. To demonstrate our approach, we consider promoters activated by a single TF, by two coactivators or in the presence of a competitive inhibitor. We find that target site search time and promoter occupancy differentially vary with the unspecific dissocia- tion rate constant. Both parameters can be harmonized by adjusting the specific dissociation rate constant of the TF. However, while measured DNA residence times of various eukaryotic TFs correspond to a fast search time, the occupation frequencies of target sites are generally low. Cells might tolerate low target site occupancies as they enable timely gene regulation in response to a changing environment.

DNA residence time is a regulatory factor of transcription repression

Transcription comprises a highly regulated sequence of intrinsically stochastic processes, resulting in bursts of transcription intermitted by quiescence. In transcription activation or repression, a transcription factor binds dynamically to DNA, with a residence time unique to each factor. Whether the DNA residence time is important in the transcription process is unclear. Here, we designed a series of transcription repressors differing in their DNA residence time by utilizing the modular DNA binding domain of transcription activator-like effectors (TALEs) and varying the number of nucleotide-recognizing repeat domains. We characterized the DNA residence times of our repressors in living cells using single molecule tracking. The residence times depended non-linearly on the number of repeat domains and differed by more than a factor of six. The factors provoked a residence time-dependent decrease in transcript level of the glucocorticoid receptor-activated gene SGK1. Down regulation of transcription was due to a lower burst frequency in the presence of long binding repressors and is in accordance with a model of competitive inhibition of endogenous activator binding. Our single molecule experiments reveal transcription factor DNA residence time as a regulatory factor controlling transcription repression and establish TALE-DNA binding domains as tools for the temporal dissection of transcription regulation.

Live cell single-molecule imaging of transcription factor binding to DNA

Imaging single fluorescent proteins in living mammalian cells is challenged by out-of-focus fluorescence excitation. To reduce out-of-focus fluorescence we developed reflected light-sheet microscopy (RLSM), a fluorescence microscopy method allowing selective plane illumination throughout the nuclei of living mammalian cells. We demonstrated the single-molecule sensitivity of RLSM by measuring the DNA-bound fraction of glucocorticoid receptor (GR) and determining the residence times on DNA of various oligomerization states and mutants of GR and estrogen receptor-α (ER), which permitted us to resolve different modes of DNA binding of GR. We demonstrated two-color single-molecule imaging by observing the spatiotemporal colocalization of two different protein pairs. Our single-molecule measurements and statistical analysis revealed dynamic properties of transcription factors.
doi: 10.1038/nmeth.2411

Super-resolved spatial organization of RNA polymerase II

Superresolution microscopy based on single-molecule centroid determination has been widely applied to cellular imaging in recent years. However, quantitative imaging of the mammalian nucleus has been challenging due to the lack of 3D optical sectioning methods for normal-sized cells, as well as the inability to accurately count the absolute copy numbers of biomolecules in highly dense structures. Using reflected light-sheet superresolution microscopy, we probed the spatial organization of transcription by RNA polymerase II (RNAP II) molecules and quantified their global extent of clustering inside the mammalian nucleus. Spatiotemporal clustering analysis that leverages on the blinking photophysics of specific organic dyes showed that the majority (>70%) of the transcription foci originate from single RNAP II molecules, and no significant clustering between RNAP II molecules was detected within the length scale of the reported diameter of “transcription factories.” The methods developed in our study pave the way for quantitative mapping and stoichiometric characterization of key biomolecular species deep inside mammalian cells.
doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318496111