Technology brings new precision to study of circadian rhythm in individual cells

Microfluidic research team

November 2, 2016

Mike Wooten

Mike Wooten

External communications coordinator, College of Engineering

Recent and archived articles by Mike Wooten

College of Engineering
Work: 706-542-0882

Leidong Mao

Leidong Mao

Associate professor

College of EngineeringBiological and Agricultural Engineering, Department ofNanoscale Science and Engineering Center
Work: 706-542-0882
Jonathan Arnold

Jonathan Arnold


Department of Genetics
Genetics, Department ofFranklin College of Arts and Sciences


  • magnify Microfluidic research team

    From left, UGA's Jonathan Arnold, Zhaojie Deng and Leidong Mao developed a new microfluidic technology that allowed them to simultaneously monitor the circadian rhythms of more than 25,000 individual cells of Neurospora crassa. Their work, published in Scientific Reports, provides new tools and approaches in the study of the circadian rhythms of organisms.

  • magnify Microfluidic device 1

    UGA researchers encapsulated individual Neurospora crassa cells in droplets using this new microfluidics device. (The channel is dyed green.) The device allowed them to track tens of thousands of cells with single-cell precision as they studied the cells’ circadian rhythms.

  • magnify Microfluidic device 2

    The cells flowed into capillary tubing where they were collected for study. (The capillary tubing is dyed red.)

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Athens, Ga. — An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Georgia has developed a new technology that may help scientists better understand how an individual cell synchronizes its biological clock with other cells.

While scientists have previously observed synchronization at the macroscopic level of millions of cells, the UGA researchers say this is the first time anyone has been able to observe single cells syncing their circadian rhythms with each other.

Circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle in the physiological process of living things, including animals, plants and fungi. This daily cycle is linked to sleeping and feeding patterns, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities.

The new microfluidic technology developed by the UGA researchers—in which individual cells are encapsulated in droplets and tagged with a fluorescent protein—provides scientists with a stable platform to track tens of thousands of cells with single-cell precision, according to Zhaojie Deng, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Engineering and the lead author of the study. The team's findings were published online Oct. 27 in the journal Scientific Reports.

In the study, Deng and her colleagues were able to monitor more than 25,000 individual cells of Neurospora crassa, a type of bread mold often used as a research model. Not only did they confirm that many cells had a distinct circadian rhythm, they also observed the individual cells synching their rhythms over time.

The researchers say the new process outlined in the study also will allow scientists to observe and gather data from cells over a longer period of time than has been possible in the past.

"This technology allows us to collect a tremendous amount of data as we try to make sense of the cells' circadian rhythm," said Leidong Mao, an associate professor in the College of Engineering and one of the study's corresponding authors. "We've been able to stabilize cells for up to 10 days, while in the past scientists were only able to gather data from individual cells for approximately 48 hours."

Mao says monitoring large numbers of N. crassa cells is difficult work because each cell is only 10 microns in diameter. By comparison, the average cross-section of a human hair is about 100 microns.

"If you want to measure tens of thousands of individual cells at the same time, each cell must be extremely stable and stay in place for up to 10 days or you lose track of them," Mao said.

The researchers say their findings may eventually lead to advances in a number of areas where the circadian rhythms of organisms play a role.

"You might want to exploit the biological clock of algae to make biofuel reactors more efficient or you might want to understand the synchronization phenomenon of agricultural pests such as locusts," said Jonathan Arnold, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences' department of genetics and a corresponding author of the study.

The team's study provides tools and approaches that might even shed light on the synchronization of cells in the master clock of the human brain, according to Arnold. He notes the behavior of the human master clock has been tied to health problems such as heart disease and cancer.

In addition to Deng, Mao and Arnold, the research team includes Taotao Zhu, a Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering; Sam Arsenault, a Ph.D. student in the department of entomology; Cristian Caranica, a Ph.D. student in the department of statistics; James Griffith, a research coordinator in the department of genetics and in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Heinz-Bernd Schüttler, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy; and Ahmad Al-Omari, an associate professor in the department of biomedical systems and informatics engineering at Yarmouk University in Jordan.

The full study is available online.


Filed under: Science, Engineering, Technology

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