The distribution of single-cell properties across a population of cells can be measured using diverse tools, but no technology directly quantifies the biochemical stimulation events regulating these properties. Here we report digital counting of growth factors in single cells using fluorescent quantum dots and calibrated three-dimensional deconvolution microscopy (QDC-3DM) to reveal physiologically relevant cell stimulation distributions. We calibrate the fluorescence intensities of individual compact quantum dots labeled with epidermal growth factor (EGF) and demonstrate the necessity of near-infrared emission to overcome intrinsic cellular autofluoresence at the single-molecule level. When applied to human triple-negative breast cancer cells, we observe proportionality between stimulation and both receptor internalization and inhibitor response, reflecting stimulation heterogeneity contributions to intrinsic variability. We anticipate that QDC-3DM can be applied to analyze any peptidic ligand to reveal single-cell correlations between external stimulation and phenotypic variability, cell fate, and drug response.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Physics and Astronomy(all)