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In Situ Hybridization of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus (Marine Cyanobacteria) spp. with rRNA-Targeted Peptide Nucleic Acid Probes

American Society for Microbiology
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  • Methods
  • Chemistry


A simple method for whole-cell hybridization using fluorescently labeled rRNA-targeted peptide nucleic acid (PNA) probes was developed for use in marine cyanobacterial picoplankton. In contrast to established protocols, this method is capable of detecting rRNA in Prochlorococcus, the most abundant unicellular marine cyanobacterium. Because the method avoids the use of alcohol fixation, the chlorophyll content of Prochlorococcus cells is preserved, facilitating the identification of these cells in natural samples. PNA probe-conferred fluorescence was measured flow cytometrically and was always significantly higher than that of the negative control probe, with positive/negative ratio varying between 4 and 10, depending on strain and culture growth conditions. Prochlorococcus cells from open ocean samples were detectable with this method. RNase treatment reduced probe-conferred fluorescence to background levels, demonstrating that this signal was in fact related to the presence of rRNA. In another marine cyanobacterium, Synechococcus, in which both PNA and oligonucleotide probes can be used in whole-cell hybridizations, the magnitude of fluorescence from the former was fivefold higher than that from the latter, although the positive/negative ratio was comparable for both probes. In Synechococcus cells growing at a range of growth rates (and thus having different rRNA concentrations per cell), the PNA- and oligonucleotide-derived signals were highly correlated (r = 0.99). The chemical nature of PNA, the sensitivity of PNA-RNA binding to single-base-pair mismatches, and the preservation of cellular integrity by this method suggest that it may be useful for phylogenetic probing of whole cells in the natural environment.

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