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Nat Methods. 2010 Apr;7(4):311-7. doi: 10.1038/nmeth.1442. Epub 2010 Mar 14.

Identifying single-cell molecular programs by stochastic profiling.

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Department of Cell Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


Cells in tissues can be morphologically indistinguishable yet show molecular expression patterns that are remarkably heterogeneous. Here we describe an approach to comprehensively identify co-regulated, heterogeneously expressed genes among cells that otherwise appear identical. The technique, called stochastic profiling, involves repeated, random selection of very small cell populations via laser-capture microdissection followed by a customized single-cell amplification procedure and transcriptional profiling. Fluctuations in the resulting gene-expression measurements are then analyzed statistically to identify transcripts that are heterogeneously coexpressed. We stochastically profiled matrix-attached human epithelial cells in a three-dimensional culture model of mammary-acinar morphogenesis. Of 4,557 transcripts, we identified 547 genes with strong cell-to-cell expression differences. Clustering of this heterogeneous subset revealed several molecular 'programs' implicated in protein biosynthesis, oxidative-stress responses and NF-kappaB signaling, which we independently confirmed by RNA fluorescence in situ hybridization. Thus, stochastic profiling can reveal single-cell heterogeneities without the need to measure expression in individual cells.

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