Background: Whole-mount in situ hybridization (WISH) is extensively used to characterize gene expression patterns in developing and adult brain and other tissues. To obtain an idea whether a novel gene might be involved in specification of a distinct brain subdivision, nucleus or neuronal lineage, it is often useful to correlate its expression with that of a known regional or neuronal marker gene. Two-color fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) can be used to compare different transcript distributions at cellular resolution. Conventional two-color FISH protocols require two separate rounds of horseradish peroxidase (POD)-based transcript detection, which involves tyramide signal amplification (TSA) and inactivation of the first applied antibody-enzyme conjugate before the second detection round.
Results: We show here that the alkaline phosphatase (AP) substrates Fast Red and Fast Blue can be used for chromogenic as well as fluorescent visualization of transcripts. To achieve high signal intensities we optimized embryo permeabilization properties by hydrogen peroxide treatment and hybridization conditions by application of the viscosity-increasing polymer dextran sulfate. The obtained signal enhancement allowed us to develop a sensitive two-color FISH protocol by combining AP and POD reporter systems. We show that the combination of AP-Fast Blue and POD-TSA-carboxyfluorescein (FAM) detection provides a powerful tool for simultaneous fluorescent visualization of two different transcripts in the zebrafish brain. The application of different detection systems allowed for a one-step antibody detection procedure for visualization of transcripts, which significantly reduced working steps and hands-on time shortening the protocol by one day. Inactivation of the first applied reporter enzyme became unnecessary, so that false-positive detection of co-localization by insufficient inactivation, a problem of conventional two-color FISH, could be eliminated.
Conclusion: Since POD activity is rather quickly quenched by substrate excess, less abundant transcripts can often not be efficiently visualized even when applying TSA. The use of AP-Fast Blue fluorescent detection may provide a helpful alternative for fluorescent transcript visualization, as the AP reaction can proceed for extended times with a high signal-to-noise ratio. Our protocol thus provides a novel alternative for comparison of two different gene expression patterns in the embryonic zebrafish brain at a cellular level. The principles of our method were developed for use in zebrafish but may be easily included in whole-mount FISH protocols of other model organisms.