Three-dimensional single-cell transcriptome imaging of thick tissues

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Department of Physics, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
  2. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Editors

  • Reviewing Editor
    Jason Lerch
    University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
  • Senior Editor
    Lu Chen
    Stanford University, Stanford, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

Summary:
The study by Fang et al. reports a 3D MERFISH method that enables spatial transcriptomics for tissues up to 200um in thickness. MERFISH, as well as other spatial transcriptomics technologies, have been mainly used for thin (e.g, 10um) tissue slices, which limits the dimension of spatial transcriptomics technique. Therefore, expanding the capacity of MERFISH to thick tissues represents a major technical advance to enable 3D spatial transcriptomics. Here the authors provide detailed technical descriptions of the new method, troubleshooting, optimization, and application examples to demonstrate its technical capacity, accuracy, sensitivity, and utility. The method will likely have a major impact on future spatial transcriptomics studies to benefit diverse biomedical fields.

Strengths:
The study was well-designed, executed, and presented. Extensive protocol optimization and quality assessments were carried out and conclusions are well supported by the data. The methods were sufficiently detailed and the results are solid and compelling.

Weaknesses:
The biological application examples were limited to cell type/subtype classification in two brain regions. Additional examples of how the data could be used to address important biological questions will enhance the impact of the study.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

Summary:
In their preprint, Fang et al present data on extending a spatial transcriptomics method, MERFISH, to 3D using a spinning disc confocal. MERFISH is a well-established method, first published by Zhaung's lab in 2015 with multiple follow-up papers. In the last few years, MERFISH has been used by multiple groups working on spatial transcriptomics, including approximately 12 million cell maps measured in the mouse brain atlas project. Variants of MERFISH were used to map epigenetic information complementary to gene expression and RNA abundance. However, MERFISH was always limited to thin ~10um sections to this date. The key contribution of this work by Fang et al. was to perform the optimization required to get MERFISH working in thick (100-200um) tissue sections.

Major strengths and weaknesses:
Overall the paper presents a technical milestone, the ability to perform highly multiplexed RNA measurements in 3D using MERFISH protocol. This is not the first spatial transcriptomics done in thick sections. Wang et al. 2018 - StarMAP used thick sections (150 um), and recently, Wang 2021 (EASI-FISH, not cited) performed serial HCR FISH on 300um sections. Data so far suggest that MERFISH has better sensitivity than in situ sequencing approaches (StarMAP) and has built-in multiplexing that EASI-FISH lacks. Therefore, while there is an innovation in the current work, i.e., it is a technically challenging task, the novelty, and overall contribution are modest compared to recently published work.

The authors could improve the writing and the manuscript text that places their work in the right context of other spatial transcriptomics work. Out of the 25 citations, 12 are for previous MERFISH work by Zhaung's lab, and only one manuscript used a spatial transcriptomics approach that is not MERFISH. Furthermore, even this paper (Wang et al, 2018) is only discussed in the context of neuroanatomy findings. The fact that Wang et al. were the first to measure thick sections is not mentioned in the manuscript. The work by Wang et al. 2021 (EASI-FISH) is not cited at all, as well as the many other multiplexed FISH papers published in recent years that are very relevant. For example, a key difference between seqFISH+ and MERFISH was the fact that only seqFISH+ used a confocal microscope, and MERFISH has always been relying on epi. As this is the first MERFISH publication to use confocal, I expect citations to previous work in seqFISH and better discussions about differences.

To get MERFISH working in 3D, the authors solved a few technical problems. To address reduced signal-to-noise due to thick samples, Fang et al. used non-linear filtering (i.e., deep learning) to enhance the spots before detection. To improve registrations, the authors identified an issue specific to their Z-Piezo that could be improved and replaced with a better model. Finally, the author used water immersion objectives to mitigate optical aberrations. All these optimization steps are reasonable and make sense. In some cases, I can see the general appeal (another demonstration of deep learning to reduce exposure time). Still, in other cases, the issue is not necessarily general enough (i.e., a different model of Piezo Z stage) to be of interest to a broad readership. There were a few additional optimization steps, i.e., testing four concentrations of readout and encoder probes. So while the preprint describes a technical milestone, achieving this milestone was done with overall modest innovation.

Data and code sharing - the only link in the preprint related to data sharing sends readers to a deleted Dropbox folder. Similarly, the GitHub link is a 404 error. Both are unacceptable. The author should do a better job sharing their raw and processed data. Furthermore, the software shared should not be just the MERlin package used to analyze but the specific code used in that package.

Author Response

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

Summary:

The study by Fang et al. reports a 3D MERFISH method that enables spatial transcriptomics for tissues up to 200um in thickness. MERFISH, as well as other spatial transcriptomics technologies, have been mainly used for thin (e.g, 10um) tissue slices, which limits the dimension of spatial transcriptomics technique. Therefore, expanding the capacity of MERFISH to thick tissues represents a major technical advance to enable 3D spatial transcriptomics. Here the authors provide detailed technical descriptions of the new method, troubleshooting, optimization, and application examples to demonstrate its technical capacity, accuracy, sensitivity, and utility. The method will likely have a major impact on future spatial transcriptomics studies to benefit diverse biomedical fields.

Strengths:

The study was well-designed, executed, and presented. Extensive protocol optimization and quality assessments were carried out and conclusions are well supported by the data. The methods were sufficiently detailed and the results are solid and compelling.

We thank the reviewer for the positive comments on our manuscript.

Weaknesses:

The biological application examples were limited to cell type/subtype classification in two brain regions. Additional examples of how the data could be used to address important biological questions will enhance the impact of the study.

We appreciate the reviewer's suggestion that demonstrating the applications of our thick-tissue 3D MERFISH method to addressing important biological questions would enhance the impact of our study. In line with this reviewer comment, we had included examples of how our method could be applied to address various biological questions in the summary (last) paragraph of our manuscript. These examples highlight the versatility and utility of our approach in addressing diverse biological questions beyond cell type classification. However, the goal of this work is to develop a new method and establish its validity. While we are interested in applying it to answer important biological questions in the future, we consider these applications beyond the scope of this current work.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

Summary:

In their preprint, Fang et al present data on extending a spatial transcriptomics method, MERFISH, to 3D using a spinning disc confocal. MERFISH is a well-established method, first published by Zhuang's lab in 2015 with multiple follow-up papers. In the last few years, MERFISH has been used by multiple groups working on spatial transcriptomics, including approximately 12 million cell maps measured in the mouse brain atlas project. Variants of MERFISH were used to map epigenetic information complementary to gene expression and RNA abundance. However, MERFISH was always limited to thin ~10um sections to this date. The key contribution of this work by Fang et al. was to perform the optimization required to get MERFISH working in thick (100-200um) tissue sections.

Major strengths and weaknesses:

Overall the paper presents a technical milestone, the ability to perform highly multiplexed RNA measurements in 3D using MERFISH protocol. This is not the first spatial transcriptomics done in thick sections. Wang et al. 2018 - StarMAP used thick sections (150 um), and recently, Wang 2021 (EASI-FISH, not cited) performed serial HCR FISH on 300um sections. Data so far suggest that MERFISH has better sensitivity than in situ sequencing approaches (StarMAP) and has built-in multiplexing that EASI-FISH lacks. Therefore, while there is an innovation in the current work, i.e., it is a technically challenging task, the novelty, and overall contribution are modest compared to recently published work.

This summary is elaborated in more details in the following paragraphs, and we will address these detailed comments below.

The authors could improve the writing and the manuscript text that places their work in the right context of other spatial transcriptomics work. Out of the 25 citations, 12 are for previous MERFISH work by Zhuang's lab, and only one manuscript used a spatial transcriptomics approach that is not MERFISH. Furthermore, even this paper (Wang et al, 2018) is only discussed in the context of neuroanatomy findings. The fact that Wang et al. were the first to measure thick sections is not mentioned in the manuscript. The work by Wang et al. 2021 (EASI-FISH) is not cited at all, as well as the many other multiplexed FISH papers published in recent years that are very relevant. For example, a key difference between seqFISH+ and MERFISH was the fact that only seqFISH+ used a confocal microscope, and MERFISH has always been relying on epi. As this is the first MERFISH publication to use confocal, I expect citations to previous work in seqFISH and better discussions about differences.

We thank the reviewer for recognizing our work as a technical milestone. Since this work is aimed to build upon the strengths of MERFISH and address some of its limitations, we primarily cited previous MERFISH papers to make it clear what specific improvements have been achieved in this work. Given the rapid growth of the spatial genomics field, it has become impractical to comprehensively cite all method development or improvement papers in this area. Instead, we cited a 2021 review article in the first sentence of the manuscript and limited all discussions afterwards to MERFISH. In the revised manuscript, we will try to find and include more recent review articles to cover method developments since 2021.

Although we presented our work as an advance in MERFISH specifically, we consider the reviewer’s suggestion of citing the 2018 STARmap paper [Wang et al., Science 361, eaat5961 (2018)] in the introduction part of our manuscript reasonable. This STARmap paper was already cited in the results part of our manuscript, and we will further emphasize this paper in the introduction of our revised manuscript, as this 2018 in situ sequencing paper was the first to demonstrate 3D spatial transcriptomic profiling in thick tissues. In addition, we thank the reviewer for bringing to our attention the EASI-FISH paper [Wang et al, Cell 184, 6361-6377 (2021)], which reported a method for thick-tissue FISH imaging and demonstrated imaging of 24 genes using multiple rounds of multi-color FISH imaging. We also recently became aware of a paper reporting 3D imaging of thick samples using PHYTOMap [Nobori et al, Nature Plants 9, 1026-1033 (2023)]. This paper, published a few days after we submitted our manuscript to eLife, demonstrated imaging of 28 genes in thick plant samples using multiple rounds of multicolor FISH and probe targeting and amplification methods previously developed for in situ sequencing. We will include these three papers in the introduction section of our revised manuscript.

However, we do not consider our use of confocal imaging in this work an advance in MERFISH because confocal, like epi-fluorescence imaging, is a commonly used approach that could be applied to MERFISH of thin tissues directly without any alteration of the protocol. Confocal imaging has been broadly used for both DNA and RNA FISH long before any genome-scale imaging was reported. Confocal and epi-imaging geometries have their distinct advantages, and which of these imaging geometries to use is the researcher’s choice depending on instrument availability and experimental needs. Thus, we do not find it necessary to cite specific papers just for using confocal imaging in spatial transcriptomic profiling, but we will see whether it is reasonable to cite these papers in the revised manuscript. Our real advance related to confocal imaging is the use of machine-learning to increase the imaging speed. Without this improvement, 3D imaging of thick tissue using confocal would take a long time and likely degrade image quality due to photobleaching of out-of-focus fluorophores before they are imaged. We thus cited several papers that used deep learning to improve imaging quality and/or speed. Our unique contribution is the combination of machine learning with confocal imaging for 3D multiplexed FISH imaging of thick tissue samples, which had not been demonstrated previously.

To get MERFISH working in 3D, the authors solved a few technical problems. To address reduced signal-to-noise due to thick samples, Fang et al. used non-linear filtering (i.e., deep learning) to enhance the spots before detection. To improve registrations, the authors identified an issue specific to their Z-Piezo that could be improved and replaced with a better model. Finally, the author used water immersion objectives to mitigate optical aberrations. All these optimization steps are reasonable and make sense. In some cases, I can see the general appeal (another demonstration of deep learning to reduce exposure time). Still, in other cases, the issue is not necessarily general enough (i.e., a different model of Piezo Z stage) to be of interest to a broad readership. There were a few additional optimization steps, i.e., testing four concentrations of readout and encoder probes. So while the preprint describes a technical milestone, achieving this milestone was done with overall modest innovation.

We appreciate the reviewer's recognition of the technical challenges we have overcome in developing this 3D thick-tissue MERFISH method. To achieve high-quality thicktissue MERFISH imaging, we had to overcome multiple different challenges. We agree with the reviewer that the solutions to some of the above challenges are intellectually more impressive than the others that required relatively more mundane efforts. However, all of these are needed to achieve the overall goal, a goal that is considered a milestone by the reviewer. We believe that the impact of a method should be evaluated based on its unique capabilities, potential applications, and its adaptability for broader adoption. In this regard, we anticipate that our reported method will be a valuable and impactful contribution to the field of spatial biology.

Data and code sharing - the only link in the preprint related to data sharing sends readers to a deleted Dropbox folder. Similarly, the GitHub link is a 404 error. Both are unacceptable. The author should do a better job sharing their raw and processed data. Furthermore, the software shared should not be just the MERlin package used to analyze but the specific code used in that package.

We apologize for the invalid Dropbox link. The Dropbox folder got accidentally moved and hence the link provided in the manuscript is no longer linked to the folder. The valid link is now: https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fo/ribx45fnx4zw7kv12sl3w/h?rlkey=fo829wbxmb9mwl6gzivg7vqj3 &dl=0. We will also upload the data to a public data repository when submitting the revised manuscript.

The GitHub link that we provided for the MERlin package is, however, valid and will lead to the correct GitHub site. If, for some reason, clicking the link does not work on your computer, copying the URL address into a web browser should work. Following the suggestion by the reviewer, in addition to the MERlin v2.2.7 package itself, we will also share the specific code to use this package for analyzing the data taken in this work in the revised manuscript.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation