Probing the cellular niche environment and signalling using cells engineered with an aptamer sensor. Aptamer sensors that bind to signalling molecules (PDGF in this case) are covalently attached to the surface of cells
The ability to explore cell signalling and cell-to-cell communication is essential for understanding cell biology and developing effective therapeutics. However, it is not yet possible to monitor the interaction of cells with their environments in real time. Here, we show that a fluorescent sensor attached to a cell membrane can detect signalling molecules in the cellular environment. The sensor is an aptamer (a short length of single-stranded DNA) that binds to platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) and contains a pair of fluorescent dyes. When bound to PDGF, the aptamer changes conformation and the dyes come closer to each other, producing a signal. The sensor, which is covalently attached to the membranes of mesenchymal stem cells, can quantitatively detect with high spatial and temporal resolution PDGF that is added in cell culture medium or secreted by neighbouring cells. The engineered stem cells retain their ability to find their way to the bone marrow and can be monitored in vivo at the single-cell level using intravital microscopy.