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Cytometry. 2002 Feb 1;47(2):89-99.

Telomere length measurement by fluorescence in situ hybridization and flow cytometry: tips and pitfalls.

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Terry Fox Laboratory, British Columbia Cancer Agency, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.



Telomeres containing noncoding DNA repeats at the end of the chromosomes are essential for chromosomal stability and are implicated in regulating the replication and senescence of cells. The gradual loss of telomere repeats in cells has been linked to aging and tumor development and methods to measure telomere length are of increasing interest. At least three methods for measuring the length of telomere repeats have been described: Southern blot analysis and quantitative fluorescence in situ hybridization using either digital fluorescence microscopy (Q-FISH) or flow cytometry (flow-FISH). Both Southern blot analysis and Q-FISH have specific limitations and are time-consuming, whereas the flow-FISH technique requires relatively few cells (10(5)) and can be completed in a single day. A further advantage of the flow-FISH method is that data on the telomere length from individual cells and subsets of cells (lymphocytes and granulocytes) can be acquired from the same sample. In order to obtain accurate and reproducible results using the flow-FISH technique, we systematically explored the influence of various steps in the protocol on telomere length values and established an acceptable range for the most critical parameters.


Isolated leukocytes from whole blood are denatured by heat and 70%/75% formamide, then hybridized with or without a telomere-specific fluorescein isothiocyante (FITC)-conjugated peptide nucleic acid probe (PNA). Unbound telomere PNA is washed away, the DNA is counterstained, and telomere fluorescence is measured on a flow cytometer using an argon ion laser (488 nm) to excite FITC. For each sample, duplicates of telomere PNA-stained and unstained tubes are analyzed.


Cell counts and flow-FISH telomere length measurements were performed on leukocytes and thymocytes of humans and other species. Leukocyte suspensions were prepared by two red blood cell lysis steps with ammonium chloride. Optimal denaturation of DNA was achieved by heating at 85-87 degrees C for 15 min in a solution containing 70%/75% formamide. Hybridization was performed at room temperature with a 0.3 microg/ml telomere-PNA probe for at least 60-90 min. Unbound telomere-PNA probe was diluted at least 4,000-40,000 times with wash steps containing 70%/75% formamide at room temperature. LDS 751 and DAPI were suitable as DNA counterstains as they did not show significant interference with telomere length measurement.


The use of flow-FISH for telomere length measurements in nucleated blood cells requires tight adherence to an optimized protocol. The method described here can be used to determine rapidly the telomere length in subsets of nucleated blood cells.

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