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Rapid screening of innate immune gene expression in zebrafish using reverse transcription - multiplex ligation-dependent probe amplification

Janneke Rotman1, Walter van Gils1, Derek Butler1, Herman P Spaink2 and Annemarie H Meijer2*

Author Affiliations

1 BaseClear B.V., Einsteinweg 5, 2333CC, Leiden, The Netherlands

2 Institute of Biology, Leiden University, Einsteinweg 55, 2333 CC, Leiden, The Netherlands

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:196  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-196

Published: 15 June 2011



With the zebrafish increasingly being used in immunology and infectious disease research, there is a need for efficient molecular tools to evaluate immune gene expression in this model species. RT-MLPA (reverse transcription - multiplex ligation-dependent probe amplification) provides a sensitive and reproducible method, in which fluorescently labelled amplification products of unique lengths are produced for a defined set of target transcripts. The method employs oligonucleotide probes that anneal to adjacent sites on a target sequence and are then joined by a heat-stable ligase. Subsequently, multiplex PCR with universal primers gives rise to amplicons that can be analyzed with standard sequencing equipment and relative quantification software. Allowing the simultaneous quantification of around 40 selected markers in a one-tube assay, RT-MLPA is highly useful for high-throughput screening applications.


We employed a dual-colour RT-MLPA probe design for chemical synthesis of probe pairs for 34 genes involved in Toll-like receptor signalling, transcriptional activation of the immune response, cytokine and chemokine production, and antimicrobial defence. In addition, six probe pairs were included for reference genes unaffected by infections in zebrafish. First, we established assay conditions for adult zebrafish infected with different strains of Mycobacterium marinum causing acute and chronic disease. Addition of competitor oligonucleotides was required to achieve peak heights in a similar range for genes with different expression levels. For subsequent analysis of embryonic samples it was necessary to adjust the amounts of competitor oligonucleotides, as the expression levels of several genes differed to a large extent between adult and embryonic tissues. Assay conditions established for one-day-old Salmonella typhimurium-infected embryos could be transferred without further adjustment to five-day-old M. marinum-infected larvae. RT-MLPA results were compared with results of previous transcriptome analyses and with real-time PCR data, demonstrating a good correlation between all expression analysis methods.


The RT-MLPA assay developed in this study provides a rapid, cheap, and robust analysis tool for simultaneous quantification of a set of 34 innate immune response genes. With adjustment of conditions, the assay is suitable for infection studies in both adult and embryonic zebrafish. Application of RT-MLPA will facilitate high-throughput screening of immune responses in the zebrafish model.