Measuring DNA content in live cells by fluorescence microscopy

Cecil J. Gomes, Michael W. Harman, Sara M. Centuori, Charles W. Wolgemuth, Jesse D. Martinez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Background: Live-cell fluorescence microscopy (LCFM) is a powerful tool used to investigate cellular dynamics in real time. However, the capacity to simultaneously measure DNA content in cells being tracked over time remains challenged by dye-associated toxicities. The ability to measure DNA content in single cells by means of LCFM would allow cellular stage and ploidy to be coupled with a variety of imaging directed analyses. Here we describe a widely applicable nontoxic approach for measuring DNA content in live cells by fluorescence microscopy. This method relies on introducing a live-cell membrane-permeant DNA fluorophore, such as Hoechst 33342, into the culture medium of cells at the end of any live-cell imaging experiment and measuring each cell's integrated nuclear fluorescence to quantify DNA content. Importantly, our method overcomes the toxicity and induction of DNA damage typically caused by live-cell dyes through strategic timing of adding the dye to the cultures; allowing unperturbed cells to be imaged for any interval of time before quantifying their DNA content. We assess the performance of our method empirically and discuss adaptations that can be implemented using this technique. Results: Presented in conjunction with cells expressing a histone 2B-GFP fusion protein (H2B-GFP), we demonstrated how this method enabled chromosomal segregation errors to be tracked in cells as they progressed through cellular division that were later identified as either diploid or polyploid. We also describe and provide an automated Matlab-derived algorithm that measures the integrated nuclear fluorescence in each cell and subsequently plots these measurements into a cell cycle histogram for each frame imaged. The algorithm's accurate assessment of DNA content was validated by parallel flow cytometric studies. Conclusions: This method allows the examination of single-cell dynamics to be correlated with cellular stage and ploidy in a high-throughput fashion. The approach is suitable for any standard epifluorescence microscope equipped with a stable illumination source and either a stage-top incubator or an enclosed live-cell incubation chamber. Collectively, we anticipate that this method will allow high-resolution microscopic analysis of cellular processes involving cell cycle progression, such as checkpoint activation, DNA replication, and cellular division.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number6
JournalCell Division
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 4 2018


  • DNA content
  • Hoechst 33342
  • Imaging
  • Live-cell microscopy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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