The role of mRNA processing in gene expression variability is poorly characterized. This study investigates the extent of cell-to-cell variability of alternative RNA splicing in mammalian cells using single-molecule imaging of CAPRIN1 and MKNK2 splice isoforms.
We applied a single-molecule imaging approach to visualize the alternatively spliced isoforms of two genes, CAPRIN1 and MKNK2, in human cells.We found that cell-to-cell variability in isoform ratios is close to the minimum possible in the absence of feedback in clonal Rpe1 cells, a diploid non-transformed cell line. In contrast, clonal HeLa cells displayed much larger isoform ratio variability between cells.Experimental and theoretical analysis suggests that variability in the regulatory splicing machinery contributes to this difference between cell lines.
Biological gene expression is a complex process which includes transcription, mRNA processing, and translation. As gene expression is a fundamental aspect of biological behavior, a central question within the fields of molecular and cellular biology is how effectively cells control the abundance of their gene expression products, mRNA and protein.
Previous experimental and theoretical studies have shown that there can be substantial cell-to-cell variation in gene expression, even between genetically identical cells grown in uniform conditions. This variation was shown to be important in a variety of biological contexts such as development, virology, immune system function, and cancer treatment. One major source of variability was shown to be transcriptional bursting, or the process in which genes are expressed sporadically separated by long durations of inexpression. Additionally, since the biochemical reactions that govern gene expression are often mediated by molecular species that are present in low numbers, variability can arise from stochastic effects owing to the random chance that an individual biochemical reaction will occur.
The role of mRNA processing in gene expression variability has not been examined thoroughly, particularly with respect to alternative splicing. Alternative RNA splicing is a form of mRNA processing which leads to the synthesis of multiple different mRNAs from a single gene. In this process, the nascent mRNA (pre-mRNA) of a gene contains sequences known as introns that can be excised in different combinations to generate multiple gene products, known as isoforms. As alternative splicing occurs in the vast majority of human genes, it presents a potentially major source of cell-to-cell variability in gene expression.
In this study, we sought to characterize the extent of cell-to-cell variability that arises from alternative RNA splicing. To do so, we utilized a single-molecule imaging approach based on fluorescent in situ hybridization to study the cell-to-cell variability in isoform ratios of two genes, CAPRIN1 and MKNK2, which each contain two splice isoforms (Figure 2 from the manuscript). Using a clonally derived, diploid, non-transformed cell line (Rpe1 cells—retinal pigment epithelial cells), we found that variability is remarkably close to the minimum possible given the probabilistic chance of individual splicing events. In contrast, we found that isoform ratio variability was substantially larger in clonally derived HeLa cells, a cancerous cell line with an unstable karyotype. To explain the differences between the two cell lines, we further examined the potential origins of isoform ratio variability. We first studied several known sources of mRNA variability, such as transcriptional bursting, but found that they did not contribute significantly to the difference between cell lines. However, when we examined the role of splicing factors in controlling cell-to-cell variability, we found that lesser control over the regulation of alternative splicing is likely to be the primary source of this difference.
Cell-to-cell variability in gene expression owing to alternative splicing is an inevitable feature of biology. Since spliced isoforms can have different and even opposing cellular functions, it would be interesting to see if such variability can have phenotypic consequences in various biological settings. We anticipate that future work will shed light on the extent of cell-to-cell variability of alternative splicing for additional genes, and may identify splicing events where heterogeneity has an important functional role.
Heterogeneity in the expression levels of mammalian genes is large even in clonal populations and has phenotypic consequences. Alternative splicing is a fundamental aspect of gene expression, yet its contribution to heterogeneity is unknown. Here, we use single-molecule imaging to characterize the cell-to-cell variability in mRNA isoform ratios for two endogenous genes, CAPRIN1 and MKNK2. We show that isoform variability in non-transformed, diploid cells is remarkably close to the minimum possible given the stochastic nature of individual splicing events, while variability in HeLa cells is considerably higher. Analysis of the potential sources of isoform ratio heterogeneity indicates that a difference in the control over splicing factor activity is one origin of this increase. Our imaging approach also visualizes non-alternatively spliced mRNA and active transcription sites, and yields spatial information regarding the relationship between splicing and transcription. Together, our work demonstrates that mammalian cells minimize fluctuations in mRNA isoform ratios by tightly regulating the splicing machinery.