Quantification of mRNA Translation in Live Cells Using Single-Molecule Imaging

Nat Protoc. 2020 Apr;15(4):1371-1398. doi: 10.1038/s41596-019-0284-x. Epub 2020 Feb 19.


mRNA translation is a key step in gene expression. Proper regulation of translation efficiency ensures correct protein expression levels in the cell, which is essential to cell function. Different methods used to study translational control in the cell rely on population-based assays that do not provide information about translational heterogeneity between cells or between mRNAs of the same gene within a cell, and generally provide only a snapshot of translation. To study translational heterogeneity and measure translation dynamics, we have developed microscopy-based methods that enable visualization of translation of single mRNAs in live cells. These methods consist of a set of genetic tools, an imaging-based approach and sophisticated computational tools. Using the translation imaging method, one can investigate many new aspects of translation in single living cells, such as translation start-site selection, 3'-UTR (untranslated region) translation and translation-coupled mRNA decay. Here, we describe in detail how to perform such experiments, including reporter design, cell line generation, image acquisition and analysis. This protocol also provides a detailed description of the image analysis pipeline and computational modeling that will enable non-experts to correctly interpret fluorescence measurements. The protocol takes 2-4 d to complete (after cell lines expressing all required transgenes have been generated).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Protein Biosynthesis / genetics*
  • RNA, Messenger / analysis*
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Single Molecule Imaging / methods*


  • RNA, Messenger