MicroRNAs are small noncoding RNAs about 22 nt long that play key roles in almost all biological processes and diseases. The fluorescent labeling and lipofection are two common methods for changing the levels and locating the position of cellular miRNAs. Despite many studies about the mechanism of DNA/RNA lipofection, little is known about the characteristics, mechanisms and specificity of lipofection of fluorescent-labeled miRNAs.
Therefore, miRNAs labeled with different fluorescent dyes were transfected into adherent and suspension cells using lipofection reagent. Then, the non-specific binding and its mechanism were investigated by flow cytometer and laser confocal microscopy. The results showed that miRNAs labeled with Cy5 (cyanine fluorescent dye) could firmly bind to the surface of adherent cells (Hela) and suspended cells (K562) even without lipofection reagent. The binding of miRNAs labeled with FAM (carboxyl fluorescein) to K562 cells was obvious, but it was not significant in Hela cells. After lipofectamine reagent was added, most of the fluorescently labeled miRNAs binding to the surface of Hela cells were transfected into intra-cell because of the high transfection efficiency, however, most of them were still binding to the surface of K562 cells. Moreover, the high-salt buffer which could destroy the electrostatic interactions did not affect the above-mentioned non-specific binding, but the organic solvent which could destroy the hydrophobic interactions eliminated it.
These results implied that the fluorescent-labeled miRNAs could non-specifically bind to the cell surface by hydrophobic interaction. It would lead to significant errors in the estimation of transfection efficiency only according to the cellular fluorescence intensity. Therefore, other methods to evaluate the transfection efficiency and more appropriate fluorescent dyes should be used according to the cell types for the accuracy of results.