Tracking distinct microglia subpopulations with photoconvertible Dendra2 in vivo

J Neuroinflammation. 2021 Oct 15;18(1):235. doi: 10.1186/s12974-021-02285-x.


Background: The ability to track individual immune cells within the central nervous system has revolutionized our understanding of the roles that microglia and monocytes play in synaptic maintenance, plasticity, and neurodegenerative diseases. However, distinguishing between similar subpopulations of mobile immune cells over time during episodes of neuronal death and tissue remodeling has proven to be challenging.

Methods: We recombineered a photoconvertible fluorescent protein (Dendra2; D2) downstream of the Cx3cr1 promoter commonly used to drive expression of fluorescent markers in microglia and monocytes. Like the popular Cx3cr1-GFP line (Cx3cr1+/GFP), naïve microglia in Cx3cr1-Dendra2 mice (Cx3cr1+/D2) fluoresce green and can be noninvasively imaged in vivo throughout the CNS. In addition, individual D2-expressing cells can be photoconverted, resulting in red fluorescence, and tracked unambiguously within a field of green non-photoconverted cells for several days in vivo.

Results: Dendra2-expressing retinal microglia were noninvasively photoconverted in both ex vivo and in vivo conditions. Local in vivo D2 photoconversion was sufficiently robust to quantify cell subpopulations by flow cytometry, and the protein was stable enough to survive tissue processing for immunohistochemistry. Simultaneous in vivo fluorescence imaging of Dendra2 and light scattering measurements (Optical Coherence Tomography, OCT) were used to assess responses of individual microglial cells to localized neuronal damage and to identify the infiltration of monocytes from the vasculature in response to large scale neurodegeneration.

Conclusions: The ability to noninvasively and unambiguously track D2-expressing microglia and monocytes in vivo through space and time makes the Cx3cr1-Dendra2 mouse model a powerful new tool for disentangling the roles of distinct immune cell subpopulations in neuroinflammation.

Keywords: Fluorescent protein; Imaging; Microglia; Photoreceptor; Retina.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Luminescent Measurements / methods*
  • Luminescent Proteins / analysis*
  • Luminescent Proteins / genetics
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Microglia / chemistry*
  • Photochemical Processes
  • Retina / chemistry*


  • Dendra2 protein, Dendronephthya
  • Luminescent Proteins