Detection and quantification of RNA decay intermediates using XRN1-resistant reporter transcripts

Nat Protoc. 2019 May;14(5):1603-1633. doi: 10.1038/s41596-019-0152-8. Epub 2019 Apr 24.


RNA degradation ensures appropriate levels of mRNA transcripts within cells and eliminates aberrant RNAs. Detailed studies of RNA degradation dynamics have been heretofore infeasible because of the inherent instability of degradation intermediates due to the high processivity of the enzymes involved. To visualize decay intermediates and to characterize the spatiotemporal dynamics of mRNA decay, we have developed a set of methods that apply XRN1-resistant RNA sequences (xrRNAs) to protect mRNA transcripts from 5'-3' exonucleolytic digestion. To our knowledge, this approach is the only method that can detect the directionality of mRNA degradation and that allows tracking of degradation products in unperturbed cells. Here, we provide detailed procedures for xrRNA reporter design, transfection and cell line generation. We explain how to extract xrRNA reporter mRNAs from mammalian cells, as well as their detection and quantification using northern blotting and quantitative PCR. The procedure further focuses on how to detect and quantify intact reporter mRNAs and XRN1-resistant degradation intermediates using single-molecule fluorescence microscopy. It provides detailed instructions for sample preparation and image acquisition using fixed, as well as living, cells. The procedure puts special emphasis on detailed descriptions of high-throughput image analysis pipelines, which are provided along with the article and were designed to perform spot co-localization, detection efficiency normalization and the quality control steps necessary for interpretation of results. The aim of the analysis software published here is to enable nonexpert readers to detect and quantify RNA decay intermediates within 4-6 d after reporter mRNA expression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Exoribonucleases
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • RNA Stability / genetics*
  • RNA, Messenger / analysis*
  • RNA, Messenger / chemistry*
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Single Molecule Imaging / methods*


  • RNA, Messenger
  • Exoribonucleases