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FISH ( Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization ) is a cytogenetic technique developed by Christoph Lengauer that is used to detect and localize the presence or absence of specific DNA sequences on chromosomes. FISH uses fluorescent probes that bind to only those parts of the chromosome with which they show a high degree of sequence similarity. Fluorescence microscopy can be used to find out where the fluorescent probe bound to the chromosomes. FISH is often used for finding specific features in DNA for use in genetic counseling, medicine, and species identification. FISH can also be used to detect and localize specific mRNAs within tissue samples. In this context, it can help define the spatial-temporal patterns of gene expression within cells and tissues.

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Preparation and Hybridization Process

Scheme of the principle of the FISH Experiment to localize a gene in the nucleus.

First, a probe is constructed. The probe must be large enough to hybridize specifically with its target but not so large as to impede the hybridization process. The probe is tagged directly with fluorophores, with targets for antibodies or with biotin. Tagging can be done in various ways, such as nick translation, or PCR using tagged nucleotides.

Then, an interphase or metaphase chromosome preparation is produced. The chromosomes are firmly attached to a substrate, usually glass. Repetitive DNA sequences must be blocked by adding short fragments of DNA to the sample. The probe is then applied to the chromosome DNA and incubated for approximately 12 hours while hybridizing. Several wash steps remove all unhybridized or partially-hybridized probes. The results are then visualized and quantified using a microscope that is capable of exciting the dye and recording images.

If the fluorescent signal is weak, amplification of the signal may be necessary in order to exceed the detection threshold of the microscope. Fluorescent signal strength depends on many factors such as probe labeling efficiency, the type of probe, and the type of dye. Fluorescently-tagged antibodies or streptavidin are bound to the dye molecule. These secondary components are selected so that they have a strong signal.

FISH experiments designed to detect or localize gene expression within cells and tissues rely on the use of a reporter gene, such as one expressing green fluorescent protein, to provide the fluorescence signal.

Fiber FISH

In an alternative technique to interphase or metaphase preparations, fiber FISH, interphase chromosomes are attached to a slide in such a way that they are stretched out in a straight line, rather than being tightly coiled, as in conventional FISH, or adopting a random conformation, as in interphase FISH. This is accomplished by applying mechanical shear along the length of the slide, either to cells that have been fixed to the slide and then lysed, or to a solution of purified DNA. A technique known as chromosome combing is increasingly used for this purpose. The extended conformation of the chromosomes allows dramatically higher resolution - even down to a few kilobases. The preparation of fiber FISH samples, although conceptually simple, is a rather skilled art, and only specialized laboratories use the technique routinely.

Variations on probes and analysis

Interphase cells positive for a chromosomal t(9;22) rearrangement.

FISH is a very general technique. The differences between the various FISH techniques are usually due to variations in the sequence and labeling of the probes; and how they are used in combination. These few modifications make possible all FISH techniques.

Probe size is important because longer probes hybridize more specifically than shorter probes. The overlap defines the resolution of detectable features. For example, if the goal of an experiment is to detect the breakpoint of a translocation, then the overlap of the probes - the degree to which one DNA sequence is contained in the adjacent probes - defines the minimum window in which the breakpoint may be detected.

The mixture of probe sequences determines the type of feature the probe can detect. Probes that hybridize along an entire chromosome are used to count the number of a certain chromosome, show translocations, or identify extra-chromosomal fragments of chromatin. This is often called "whole-chromosome painting." If every possible probe is used, every chromosome, (the whole genome) would be marked fluorescently, which would not be particularly useful for determining features of individual sequences. However, a mixture of smaller probes can be created that is specific to a particular region (locus) of DNA; these mixtures are used to detect deletion mutations. When combined with a specific colour, a locus-specific probe mixture is used to detect very specific translocations. Special locus-specific probe mixtures are often used to count chromosomes, by binding to the centromeric regions of chromosomes, which are unique enough to identify each chromosome (with the exception of Chromosome 13, 14 21, 22.)

A variety of other techniques use mixtures of differently-colored probes. A range of colors in mixtures of fluorescent dyes can be detected, so each human chromosome can be identified by a characteristic color using whole-chromosome probe mixtures and a variety of ratios of colors. Although there are more chromosomes than easily-distinguishable fluorescent dye colors, ratios of probe mixtures can be used to create secondary colors. Similar to comparative genomic hybridization, the probe mixture for the secondary colors is created by mixing the correct ratio of two sets of differently-colored probes for the same chromosome. This technique is sometimes called M-FISH. The same physics that make a variety of colors possible for M-FISH can be used for the detection of translocations.

That is, colors that are adjacent appear to overlap; a secondary color is observed. Some assays are designed so that the secondary color will be present or absent in cases of interest. An example is the detection of BCR/ABL translocations, where the secondary color indicates disease. This variation is often called double-fusion FISH or D-FISH. In the opposite situation where the absence of the secondary color is pathological is illustrated by an assay used to investigate translocations where only one of the breakpoints is known or constant. Locus-specific probes are made for one side of the breakpoint and the other intact chromosome. In normal cells, the secondary colour is observed, but only the primary colour is observed when the translocation occurs. This technique is sometimes called "break-apart FISH".


Q-FISH combines FISH with PNAs and computer software to quantify fluorescence intensity. This technique is used routinely in telomere length research.


Flow-FISH uses flow cytometry to perform FISH automatically using per-cell fluorescence measurements.

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