Imaging mRNA with single-molecule sensitivity in live cells has become an indispensable tool for quantitatively studying RNA biology. The MS2 system has been extensively used due to its unique simplicity and sensitivity. However, the levels of the coat protein needed for consistent labeling of mRNAs limits the sensitivity and quantitation of this technology. Here, we applied fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy to quantitatively characterize and enhance the MS2 system. Surprisingly, we found that a high fluorescence background resulted from inefficient dimerization of fluorescent protein (FP)-labeled MS2 coat protein (MCP). To mitigate this problem, we used a single-chain tandem dimer of MCP (tdMCP) that significantly increased the uniformity and sensitivity of mRNA labeling. Furthermore, we characterized the PP7 coat protein and the binding to its respective RNA stem loop. We conclude that the PP7 system performs better for RNA labeling. Finally, we used these improvements to study endogenous β-actin mRNA, which has 24xMS2 binding sites inserted into the 3' untranslated region. The tdMCP-FP allowed uniform RNA labeling and provided quantitative measurements of endogenous mRNA concentration and diffusion. This work provides a foundation for quantitative spectroscopy and imaging of single mRNAs directly in live cells.
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