Fluorescent polymer nanoparticles for long-term labeling and tracking of living cells with any desired color code are developed. They are built from biodegradable poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) polymer loaded with cyanine dyes (DiO, DiI, and DiD) with the help of bulky fluorinated counterions, which minimize aggregation-caused quenching. At the single particle level, these particles are ≈20-fold brighter than quantum dots of similar color. Due to their identical 40 nm size and surface properties, these nanoparticles are endocytosed equally well by living cells. Mixing nanoparticles of three colors in different proportions generates a homogeneous RGB (red, green, and blue) barcode in cells, which is transmitted through many cell generations. Cell barcoding is validated on 7 cell lines (HeLa, KB, embryonic kidney (293T), Chinese hamster ovary, rat basophilic leucemia, U97, and D2A1), 13 color codes, and it enables simultaneous tracking of co-cultured barcoded cell populations for >2 weeks. It is also applied to studying competition among drug-treated cell populations. This technology enabled six-color imaging in vivo for (1) tracking xenografted cancer cells and (2) monitoring morphogenesis after microinjection in zebrafish embryos. In addition to a robust method of multicolor cell labeling and tracking, this work suggests that multiple functions can be co-localized inside cells by combining structurally close nanoparticles carrying different functions.
Keywords: dye-loaded polymer nanoparticles; fluorescence microscopy; long-term cell tacking; optical coding; zebrafish.
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