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It is now widely accepted that oligomers consisting of Aβ peptide are the cytotoxic species contributing mostly to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Aβ peptide production results from the specific proteolytic processing of the amyloid precursor protein (APP). Deciphering the factors governing the activity of the secretases responsible for the cleavage of APP is still a critical issue. Kits available commercially measure the enzymatic activity of the secretases from cells lysates, in vitro. By contrast, we have developed a prototypal rapid bioassay that provides visible information on the proteolytic processing of APP directly in living cells. APP was fused to a monomeric variant of the green fluorescent protein and a monomeric variant of the red fluorescent protein at the C-terminal and N-terminal, respectively. Changes in the proteolytic processing rate in transfected human neuroblastoma and rat neuronal cells were imaged with confocal microscopy as changes in the red/green fluorescence intensity ratio. The significant decrease in the mean red/green ratio observed in cells over-expressing the β-secretase BACE1 fused to a monomeric blue fluorescent protein confirms that the proteolytic site is still accessible. Specific siRNA was used to evaluate the contribution of endogenous BACE1. Interestingly, we found that the degree of proteolytic processing of APP is not completely homogeneous within the same single cell, and that there is a high degree of variability between cells of the same type. We were also able to follow with a fluorescence spectrometer the changes in the red emission intensity of the extracellular medium when BACE1 was overexpressed. This represents a complementary approach to fluorescence microscopy for rapidly detecting changes in the proteolytic processing of APP in real time. Moreover, we obtained a quantitatively robust estimate of the changes in the red/green ratio for the above conditions by using a flow cytometer able to simultaneously excite and measure the red and green fluorescence. Our novel approach lay the foundation for a bioassay suitable to study the effect of drugs or particular conditions, to investigate in an unbiased way the the proteolytic processing of APP in single living cells in order, and to elucidate the causes of the variability and the factors driving the processing of APP.
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