Gene Expression Measurement

Measuring gene expression is an important part of many life sciences - the ability to quantify the level at which a particular gene is expressed within a cell, tissue or organism can give a huge amount of information. For example measuring gene expression can:

  • Identify viral infection of a cell (viral protein expression)
  • Determine an individual's susceptibility to cancer (oncogene expression)
  • Find if a bacterium is resistant to penicillin (beta-lactamase expression)

Similarly the analysis of the location of expression protein is a powerful tool and this can be done on an organism or cellular scale. Investigation of localisation is particularly important for study of development in multicellular organisms and as an indicator of protein function in single cells. Ideally measurement of expression is done by detecting the final gene product (for many genes this is the protein) however it is often easier to detect one of the precursors, typically mRNA, and infer gene expression level.

mRNA quantification

Levels of mRNA can be quantitatively measured by Northern blotting which gives size and sequence information about the mRNA molecules. A sample of RNA is separated on an agarose gel and hybridized to a radio-labeled RNA probe that is complementary to the target sequence. The radio-labeled RNA is then detected by an autoradiograph. The main problems with Northern blotting stem from the use of radioactive reagents (which make the procedure time consuming and potentially dangerous) and lower quality quantification than more modern methods (due to the fact that quantification is done by measuring band strength in an image of a gel). Northern blotting is, however, still widely used as the additional mRNA size information allows the discrimination of alternately spliced transcripts.

A more modern low-throughput approach for measuring mRNA abundance is reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR followed with qPCR). RT-PCR first generates a DNA template from the mRNA by reverse transcription. The DNA template is then used for qPCR where the change in fluorescence of a probe changes as the DNA amplification process progresses. With a carefully constructed standard curve qPCR can produce an absolute measurement such as number of copies of mRNA, typically in units of copies per nanolitre of homogenized tissue or copies per cell. qPCR is very sensitive (detection of a single mRNA molecule is possible), but can be expensive due to the fluorescent probes required.

Northern blots and RT-qPCR are good for detecting whether a single gene is being expressed, but it quickly becomes impractical if many genes within the sample are being studied. Using DNA microarrays transcript levels for many genes at once (expression profiling) can be measured. Recent advances in microarray technology allow for the quantification, on a single array, of transcript levels for every known gene in several organism's genomes, including humans.

Alternatively "tag based" technologies like Serial analysis of gene expression (SAGE), which can provide a relative measure of the cellular concentration of different messenger RNAs, can be used. The great advantage of tag-based methods is the "open architecture", allowing for the exact measurement of any transcript, with a known or unknown sequence.

Protein quantification

For genes encoding proteins the expression level can be directly assessed by a number of means with some clear analogies to the techniques for mRNA quantification.

The most commonly used method is to perform a Western blot against the protein of interest - this gives information on the size of the protein in addition to its identity. A sample (often cellular lysate) is separated on a polyacrylamide gel, transferred to a membrane and then probed with an antibody to the protein of interest. The antibody can either be conjugated to a fluorophore or to horseradish peroxidase for imaging and/or quantification. The gel-based nature of this assay makes quantification less accurate but it has the advantage of being able to identify later modifications to the protein, for example proteolysis or ubiquitination, from changes in size.

By replacing the gene with a new version fused a green fluorescent protein (or similar) marker expression may be directly quantified in live cells. This is done by imaging using a fluorescence microscope. It is very difficult to clone a GFP-fused protein into its native location in the genome without affecting expression levels so this method often cannot be used to measure endogenous gene expression. It is, however, widely used to measure the expression of a gene artificially introduced into the cell, for example via an expression vector. It is important to note that by fusing a target protein to a fluorescent reporter the protein's behavior, including its cellular localization and expression level, can be significantly changed.

The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay works by using antibodies immobilised on a microtiter plate to capture proteins of interest from samples added to the well. Using a detection antibody conjugated to an enzyme or fluorophore the quantity of bound protein can be accurately measured by fluorometric or colourimetric detection. The detection process is very similar to that of a Western blot, but by avoiding the gel steps more accurate quantification can be achieved.


Analysis of expression is not limited to only quantification; localisation can also be determined. mRNA can be detected with a suitably labelled complementary mRNA strand and protein can be detected via labelled antibodies. The probed sample is then observed by microscopy to identify where the mRNA or protein is.

Further Reading

This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article on "Gene expression" All material adapted used from Wikipedia is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Wikipedia® itself is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

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