Live cell RNA imaging using genetically encoded fluorescent labels is an important tool for monitoring RNA activities. A recently reported RNA aptamer-fluorogen system, the Spinach, in which an RNA aptamer binds and induces the fluorescence of a GFP-like 3,5-difluoro-4-hydroxybenzylidene imidazolinone (DFHBI) ligand, can be readily tagged to the RNA of interest. Although the aptamer-fluorogen system is sufficient for imaging highly abundant non-coding RNAs (tRNAs, rRNAs, etc.), it performs poorly for mRNA imaging due to low brightness. In addition, whether the aptamer-fluorogen system may perturb the native RNA characteristics has not been systematically characterized at the levels of RNA transcription, translation and degradation. To increase the brightness of these aptamer-fluorogen systems, we constructed and tested tandem arrays containing multiple Spinach aptamers (8-64 aptamer repeats). Such arrays enhanced the brightness of the tagged mRNA molecules by up to ∼17 fold in living cells. Strong laser excitation with pulsed illumination further increased the imaging sensitivity of Spinach array-tagged RNAs. Moreover, transcriptional fusion to the Spinach array did not affect mRNA transcription, translation or degradation, indicating that aptamer arrays might be a generalizable labeling method for high-performance and low-perturbation live cell RNA imaging.
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