Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) is a powerful technique that is used to detect and localize specific nucleic acid sequences in the cellular environment. In order to increase throughput, FISH can be combined with flow cytometry (flow-FISH) to enable the detection of targeted nucleic acid sequences in thousands of individual cells. As a result, flow-FISH offers a distinct advantage over lysate/ensemble-based nucleic acid detection methods because each cell is treated as an independent observation, thereby permitting stronger statistical and variance analyses. These attributes have prompted the use of FISH and flow-FISH methods in a number of different applications and the utility of these methods has been successfully demonstrated in telomere length determination1,2, cellular identification and gene expression3,4, monitoring viral multiplication in infected cells5, and bacterial community analysis and enumeration6.
Traditionally, the specificity of FISH and flow-FISH methods has been imparted by DNA oligonucleotide probes. Recently however, the replacement of DNA oligonucleotide probes with nucleic acid analogs as FISH and flow-FISH probes has increased both the sensitivity and specificity of each technique due to the higher melting temperatures (Tm) of these analogs for natural nucleic acids7,8. Locked nucleic acid (LNA) probes are a type of nucleic acid analog that contain LNA nucleotides spiked throughout a DNA or RNA sequence9,10. When coupled with flow-FISH, LNA probes have previously been shown to outperform conventional DNA probes7,11 and have been successfully used to detect eukaryotic mRNA12 and viral RNA in mammalian cells5.
Here we expand this capability and describe a LNA flow-FISH method which permits the specific detection of RNA in bacterial cells (Figure 1). Specifically, we are interested in the detection of small non-coding regulatory RNA (sRNA) which have garnered considerable interest in the past few years as they have been found to serve as key regulatory elements in many critical cellular processes13. However, there are limited tools to study sRNAs and the challenges of detecting sRNA in bacterial cells is due in part to the relatively small size (typically 50-300 nucleotides in length) and low abundance of sRNA molecules as well as the general difficulty in working with smaller biological cells with varying cellular membranes. In this method, we describe fixation and permeabilzation conditions that preserve the structure of bacterial cells and permit the penetration of LNA probes as well as signal amplification steps which enable the specific detection of low abundance sRNA (Figure 2).