Single cell RT-qPCR based ocean environmental sensing device development

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This thesis research focuses on developing a single-cell gene expression analysis method for marine diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana and constructing a chip level tool to realize the single cell RT-qPCR analysis. This chip will serve as a conceptual foundation for future

This thesis research focuses on developing a single-cell gene expression analysis method for marine diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana and constructing a chip level tool to realize the single cell RT-qPCR analysis. This chip will serve as a conceptual foundation for future deployable ocean monitoring systems. T. pseudonana, which is a common surface water microorganism, was detected in the deep ocean as confirmed by phylogenetic and microbial community functional studies. Six-fold copy number differences between 23S rRNA and 23S rDNA were observed by RT-qPCR, demonstrating the moderate functional activity of detected photosynthetic microbes in the deep ocean including T. pseudonana. Because of the ubiquity of T. pseudonana, it is a good candidate for an early warning system for ocean environmental perturbation monitoring. This early warning system will depend on identifying outlier gene expression at the single-cell level. An early warning system based on single-cell analysis is expected to detect environmental perturbations earlier than population level analysis which can only be observed after a whole community has reacted. Preliminary work using tube-based, two-step RT-qPCR revealed for the first time, gene expression heterogeneity of T. pseudonana under different nutrient conditions. Heterogeneity was revealed by different gene expression activity for individual cells under the same conditions. This single cell analysis showed a skewed, lognormal distribution and helped to find outlier cells. The results indicate that the geometric average becomes more important and representative of the whole population than the arithmetic average. This is in contrast with population level analysis which is limited to arithmetic averages only and highlights the value of single cell analysis. In order to develop a deployable sensor in the ocean, a chip level device was constructed. The chip contains surface-adhering droplets, defined by hydrophilic patterning, that serve as real-time PCR reaction chambers when they are immersed in oil. The chip had demonstrated sensitivities at the single cell level for both DNA and RNA. The successful rate of these chip-based reactions was around 85%. The sensitivity of the chip was equivalent to published microfluidic devices with complicated designs and protocols, but the production process of the chip was simple and the materials were all easily accessible in conventional environmental and/or biology laboratories. On-chip tests provided heterogeneity information about the whole population and were validated by comparing with conventional tube based methods and by p-values analysis. The power of chip-based single-cell analyses were mainly between 65-90% which were acceptable and can be further increased by higher throughput devices. With this chip and single-cell analysis approaches, a new paradigm for robust early warning systems of ocean environmental perturbation is possible.