Real-time Tracking of Stem Cell Viability, Proliferation, and Differentiation with Autonomous Bioluminescence Imaging


Michael Conway, Tingting Xu, Andrew Kirkpatrick, Steven Ripp, Gary S. Sadler, Dan Close


Background: Luminescent reporter proteins are vital tools for visualizing cells and cellular activity. Among the current toolbox of bioluminescent systems, only bacterial luciferase has genetically defined luciferase and luciferin synthesis pathways that are functional at the mammalian cell temperature optimum of 37 °C and have the potential for in vivo applications. However, this system is not functional in all cell types, including stem cells, where the ability to monitor continuously and in real-time cellular processes such as differentiation and proliferation would be particularly advantageous. Results: We report that artificial subdivision of the bacterial luciferin and luciferase pathway subcomponents enables continuous or inducible bioluminescence in pluripotent and mesenchymal stem cells when the luciferin pathway is overexpressed with a 20-30:1 ratio. Ratio-based expression is demonstrated to have minimal effects on phenotype or differentiation while enabling autonomous bioluminescence without requiring external excitation. We used this method to assay the proliferation, viability, and toxicology responses of iPSCs and showed that these assays are comparable in their performance to established colorimetric assays. Furthermore, we used the continuous luminescence to track stem cell progeny post-differentiation. Finally, we show that tissue-specific promoters can be used to report cell fate with this system. Conclusions: Our findings expand the utility of bacterial luciferase and provide a new tool for stem cell research by providing a method to easily enable continuous, non-invasive bioluminescent monitoring in pluripotent cells.

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Conway M, Xu T, Kirkpatrick A, Ripp S, Sayler G, Close D. 2020. Real-time tracking of stem cell viability, proliferation, and differentiation with autonomous bioluminescence imaging. BMC Biology 18, doi: 10.1186/s12915-020-00815-2.