To get a clear picture of what’s happening inside a cell, scientists need to know the locations of thousands of proteins and other molecules. MIT chemists have now developed a technique that can tag all of the proteins in a particular region of a cell, allowing them to more accurately map those proteins.
“That’s a holy grail for biology — to be able to get spatially and temporally resolved molecular maps of living cells,” says Alice Ting, the Ellen Swallow Richards Associate Professor of Chemistry at MIT. “We’re still really far from that goal, but the overarching motivation is to get closer to that goal.”
Ting’s new method, developed with researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard Medical School, combines the strengths of two existing techniques — microscopic imaging and mass spectrometry — to tag proteins in a specific cell location and generate a comprehensive list of all the proteins in that area.
In a paper appearing in the Jan. 31 online edition of Science, Ting and colleagues used the new technique to identify nearly 500 proteins located in the mitochondrial matrix — the innermost compartment of the cellular organelle where energy is generated.
Using fluorescence or electron microscopy, scientists can determine protein locations with high resolution, but only a handful of a cell’s approximately 20,000 proteins can be imaged at once. “It’s a bandwidth problem,” Ting says. “You certainly couldn’t image all the proteins in the proteome at once in a single cell, because there’s no way to spectrally separate that many channels of information.”
With mass spectrometry, which uses ionization to detect the mass and chemical structure of a compound, scientists can analyze a cell’s entire complement of proteins in a single experiment. However, the process requires dissolving the cell membrane to release a cell’s contents, which jumbles all of the proteins together. By purifying the mixture and extracting specific organelles, it is then possible to figure out which proteins were in those organelles, but the process is messy and often unreliable.
The new MIT approach tags proteins within living cells before mass spectrometry is done, allowing spatial information to be captured before the cell is broken apart. This information is then reconstructed during analysis by noting which proteins carry the location tag.