Please review our new paper: Sequencing mRNA from cryo-sliced Drosophila embryos to determine genome-wide spatial patterns of gene expression

It’s no secret to people who read this blog that I hate the way scientific publishing works today. Most of my efforts in this domain have focused on removing barriers to the access and reuse of published papers. But there are other things that are broken with the way scientists communicate with each other, and chief amongst them is pre-publication peer review. I’ve written about this before, and won’t rehash the arguments here, save to say that I think we should publish first, and then review. But one could argue that I haven’t really practiced what I preach, as all of my lab’s papers have gone through peer review before they were published.

No more. From now on we are going to post all of our papers online when we feel they’re ready to share – before they go to a journal. We’ll then solicit comments from our colleagues and use them to improve the work prior to formal publication. Physicists and mathematicians have been doing this for decades, as have an increasing number of biologists. It’s time for this to become standard practice.

Some ground rules. I will not filter comments except to remove obvious spam. You are welcome to post comments under your name or under a pseudonym – I will not reveal anyone’s identity – but I urge you to use your real name as I think we should have fully open peer review in science.

OK. Now for the paper, which is posted on arxiv and can be linked to, cited there. We also have a copy here, in case you’re having trouble with figures on arXiv.

Peter A. Combs and Michael B. Eisen (2013). Sequencing mRNA from cryo-sliced Drosophila embryos to determine genome-wide spatial patterns of gene expression. 

Several years ago a postdoc in my lab, Susan Lott (now at UC Davis) developed methods to sequence the RNA’s from single Drosophila embryos. She was interested in looking at expression differences between males and females in early embryogenesis, and published a beautiful paper on that topic.

Although we were initially worried that we wouldn’t be albe to get enough RNA from single embryos to get reliable sequencing results, it turns out we got more than enough. Each embryo yielded around 100ng of total RNA, and we would end up loading only ~10% of the sample onto the sequencer. So it occurred to us that maybe we could work with material from pieces of individual embryos and thereby get spatial expression information on a genomic scale in a single quick experiment – an alternative to highly informative, but slow imaging-based methods.

I recruited a new biophysics student, Peter Combs, to work on slicing embryos with a microtome along the anterior-posterior axis and sequencing each of the sections to identify genes with patterned expression along the A-P axis. In typical PI fashion, I figured this would take a few weeks, but it ended up taking over a year to get right.

The major challenge was that, while a tenth of an embyro contains more than enough RNA to analyze by mRNA-seq, it turned out to be very difficult to shepherd that RNA successfully from a single cryosection to the sequencer. Peter was routinely failing to recover RNA and make libraries from these samples using methods that worked great for whole embryos. While there are various protocols out there claiming to analyze RNA from single cells, we were reluctant to use these amplification-based strategies.

The typical way people deal with loss of small quantities of nucleic acids during experimental manipulation is to add carrier RNA or DNA – something like tRNA or salmon sperm DNA. We didn’t want to do that, since we would just end up with tons of useless sequencing reads. So we came up with a different strategy – adding embryos from distantly related Drosophila species to each slice at an early stage in the process. This brought the total amount of RNA in each sample well amove the threshold where our purification and library preparation worked robustly, and we could easily separate the D. melanogaster RNA we were interested in for this experiment from that of the “carrier” embryo. But we could avoid wasting sequencing reads by turning the carrier RNAs into an experiment of their own – in this case looking at expression variation between species.

With this trick, the method now works great, and the paper is really just a description of the method and a demonstration that accurate expression patterns can be recovered from individual cryosectioned embryos. The resolution here is not that great – we used 6 slices of ~60um each per embryo. But we’ve started to make smaller sections, and a back of the envelope calculation suggests we can, with available sample handling and sequencing techniques, make up to 100 slices per embryo. This would be more than enough to see stripes and other subtle patterns missed in the current dataset.

Our immediate near term goals are to do a developmental time course, compare patterns in male and female embryos, look at other species and examine embryos from strains carrying various patterning defects. For those of you going to the fly meeting in DC in April, Peter’s talk will, I hope, have some of this new data.

Anyway, we would love comments on either the method or the manuscript.


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