Technological advances have enabled the analysis of cellular protein and RNA levels with unprecedented depth and sensitivity, allowing for an unbiased re-evaluation of gene regulation during fundamental biological processes. Here, we have chronicled the dynamics of protein and mRNA expression levels across a minimally perturbed cell cycle in human myeloid leukemia cells using centrifugal elutriation combined with mass spectrometry-based proteomics and RNA-Seq, avoiding artificial synchronization procedures. We identify myeloid-specific gene expression and variations in protein abundance, isoform expression and phosphorylation at different cell cycle stages. We dissect the relationship between protein and mRNA levels for both bulk gene expression and for over ∼6000 genes individually across the cell cycle, revealing complex, gene-specific patterns. This data set, one of the deepest surveys to date of gene expression in human cells, is presented in an online, searchable database, the Encyclopedia of Proteome Dynamics (http://www.peptracker.com/epd/).
Cells are complex environments: at any one time, thousands of different genes act as molecular templates to produce messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules, which themselves are templates used to produce proteins. However, not all genes are active at all times inside all cells: as cells grow and divide as part of the cell division cycle, genes are switched on and off on a regular basis. Similarly, the patterns of mRNA and protein production are different in, say, immune and skin cells.
In recent years, the tools available for detecting mRNA molecules and proteins have become more powerful, allowing researchers to move beyond just measuring the total amounts of mRNA and protein in the cell to now measuring individual amounts of specific mRNA and protein molecules encoded by specific genes. However, it has been a challenge to make these measurements at different stages of the cell cycle. Most of the methods used to do this have involved artificially ‘arresting’ the cell cycle, which can lead to side effects that are difficult to account for.
Ly et al. have now overcome these problems using a combination of three methods to measure the levels of mRNA and protein molecules associated with over 6000 genes in human cancer cells derived from myeloid leukemia. Exploiting the fact that cells change size during the cell cycle, Ly et al. used a centrifugation technique to separate cells based on their size and, therefore, the stage of the cell cycle they were at, thus avoiding the need to arrest the cell cycle. An approach called RNA-Seq was then employed to measure the levels of the different mRNA molecules in the cells, and a device called a mass spectrometer was used to identify and measure the levels of many different proteins.
In addition to being able to follow the level of mRNA and protein production for a large number of genes throughout the cell division cycle, while also obtaining detailed information about how many of the proteins are modified, Ly et al. discovered that—contrary to expectations—low numbers of mRNA molecules were sometimes associated with high numbers of the corresponding protein, and vice versa. This work provides a better understanding of the complex relationship between the levels of an mRNA and its corresponding protein product, and also demonstrates how it may be possible to detect subtle but important differences between cell types and disease states, including different types of cancer.