Multiplexed imaging of high-density libraries of RNAs with MERFISH and expansion microscopy

Guiping Wang, Jeffrey R. Moffitt & Xiaowei Zhuang
Scientific Reports 8, 4847 (2018)

As an image-based single-cell transcriptomics approach, multiplexed error-robust fluorescence in situ hybridization (MERFISH) allows hundreds to thousands of RNA species to be identified, counted and localized in individual cells while preserving the native spatial context of RNAs. In MERFISH, RNAs are identified via a combinatorial labeling approach that encodes RNA species with error-robust barcodes followed by sequential rounds of single-molecule FISH (smFISH) to read out these barcodes. The accuracy of RNA identification relies on spatially separated signals from individual RNA molecules, which limits the density of RNAs that can be measured and makes the multiplexed imaging of a large number of high-abundance RNAs challenging. Here we report an approach that combines MERFISH and expansion microscopy to substantially increase the total density of RNAs that can be measured. Using this approach, we demonstrate accurate identification and counting of RNAs, with a near 100% detection efficiency, in a ~130-RNA library composed of many high-abundance RNAs, the total density of which is more than 10 fold higher than previously reported. In parallel, we demonstrate the combination of MERFISH with immunofluorescence in expanded samples. These advances increase the versatility of MERFISH and will facilitate its application to a wide range of biological problems.