Optics-Free Visualization of Proteins in Single Cells by Time of Flight-Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry Coupled with Genetically Encoded Chemical Tags

In situ visualization of proteins of interest at single cell level is attractive in cell biology, molecular biology and biomedicine, which usually involves photon, electron or X-ray based imaging methods. Herein, we report an optics-free strategy that images a specific protein in single cells by time of flight-secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) following genetic incorporation of fluorine-containing unnatural amino acids as a chemical tag into the protein via genetic code expansion technique. The method was developed and validated by imaging GFP in E. coli and human HeLa cancer cells, and then utilized to visualize the distribution of chemotaxis protein CheA in E. coli cells and the interaction between high mobility group box 1 protein and cisplatin damaged DNA in HeLa cells. The present work highlights the power of ToF-SIMS imaging combined with genetically encoded chemical tags for in situ visualization of proteins of interest as well as the interactions between proteins and drugs or drug damaged DNA in single cells.