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Investigating macromolecules inside cultured and injected cells by in-cell NMR spectroscopy


The noninvasive character of NMR spectroscopy, combined with the sensitivity of the chemical shift, makes it ideally suited to investigate the conformation, binding events and dynamics of macromolecules inside living cells. These 'in-cell NMR' experiments involve labeling the macromolecule of interest with a nonradioactive but NMR-active isotope (15N or 13C). Cellular samples are prepared either by selectively overexpressing the protein in suitable cells (e.g., bacterial cells grown on isotopically labeled media), or by injecting isotopically labeled proteins directly into either cells or cell extracts. Here we provide detailed protocols for in-cell NMR experiments in the prokaryotic organism Escherichia coli, as well as eukaryotic cells and extracts employing Xenopus laevis oocytes or egg extracts. In-cell NMR samples with proteins overexpressed in E. coli can be produced within 13–14 h. Preparing Xenopus oocyte samples for in-cell NMR experiments takes 6–14 h depending on the oocyte preparation scheme and the injection method used.

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Figure 1: Relationship between the level of protein expression and the quality of the in-cell NMR spectra.
Figure 2: Overlay of the [15N, H]-HSQC spectra of purified GB1 (black) and GB1 in crude Xenopus egg extracts (red).
Figure 3: Overlay of the [15N, H]-HSQC spectra of purified GB1 (black) and GB1 in Xenopus oocytes (red).

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Z.S. acknowledges funding from the Beckman Foundation. P.S. acknowledges funding by a Human Science Frontier Project Organization long-term fellowship (LT00686/2004-C). S.R. acknowledges support from the Verband der Deutschen Chemischen Industrie. V.D. acknowledges support from the Center for Biomolecular Magnetic Resonance at the University of Frankfurt, Germany.

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Correspondence to Volker Dötsch.

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Serber, Z., Selenko, P., Hänsel, R. et al. Investigating macromolecules inside cultured and injected cells by in-cell NMR spectroscopy. Nat Protoc 1, 2701–2709 (2006).

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