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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Methodology article

Quantifying myosin light chain phosphorylation in single adherent cells with automated fluorescence microscopy

Kiran Bhadriraju1*, John T Elliott2, My Nguyen3 and Anne L Plant2

Author Affiliations

1 SAIC, Arlington, VA, USA

2 Cell and Tissue Measurements Group, Biochemical Sciences Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, USA

3 American University, Washington DC, USA

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BMC Cell Biology 2007, 8:43  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-8-43

Published: 17 October 2007



In anchorage dependent cells, myosin generated contractile forces affect events closely associated with adhesion such as the formation of stress fibers and focal adhesions, and temporally distal events such as entry of the cell into S-phase. As occurs in many signaling pathways, a phosphorylation reaction (in this case, phosphorylation of myosin light chain) is directly responsible for cell response. Western blotting has been useful in measuring intracellular phosphorylation events, but cells are lysed in the process of sample preparation for western blotting, and spatial information such as morphology, localization of the phosphorylated species, and the distribution of individual cell responses across the population is lost. We report here a reliable automated microscopy method for quantitative measurement of myosin light chain phosphorylation in adherent cells. This method allows us to concurrently examine cell morphology, cell-cell contact, and myosin light chain diphosphorylation in vascular smooth muscle cells.


Paraformaldehyde fixation and Triton X-100 permeabilization preserved cell morphology and myosin light chain phosphorylation better than the alternative fixation/permeabilization methods tested. We utilized automated microscopy methods to acquire three color images, determine cell spread area, and quantify the intensity of staining within each cell with anti-phospho-MLC antibody. Our results indicate that A10 rat aortic smooth muscle cells exhibit a re producible non-Gaussian distribution of MLC phosphorylation across a population of unsynchronized genetically identical cells. Adding an inhibitor of Rho kinase, Y27632, or plating cells on a low density of fibronectin, reduced phospho-myosin light chain signal as expected. On the other hand, adding calyculin A, an activator of contractility, increased myosin light chain phosphorylation. The IC50 for myosin light chain phosphorylation using Y27632 was determined to be 2.1 ± 0.6 micrometers. We observed a positive linear relationship between cell area and myosin light chain diphosphorylation, which is consistent with what has been reported in the literature using other methods.


Our results show that using proper specimen fixation techniques and background subtraction methods, imaging cytometry can be used to reliably measure relative myosin light chain phosphorylation in individual adherent cells. Importantly, the ability to make this measurement in adherent cells allows for simultaneous measurement of and correlation with other parameters of cellular topography such as morphology and cell-cell proximity. This assay has potential application in screening for drug development.