© The Author(s) 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.
Current methods for characterizing extrachromosomal nuclear DNA in mammalian cells do not permit single-cell analysis, are often semi-quantitative and frequently biased toward the detection of circular species. To overcome these limitations, we developed Halo-FISH to visualize and quantitatively analyze extrachromosomal DNA in single cells. We demonstrate Halo-FISH by using it to analyze extrachromosomal telomere-repeat (ECTR) in human cells that use the Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres (ALT) pathway(s) to maintain telomere lengths. We find that GM847 and VA13 ALT cells average ∼80 detectable G/C-strand ECTR DNA molecules/nucleus, while U2OS ALT cells average ∼18 molecules/nucleus. In comparison, human primary and telomerase-positive cells contain <5 ECTR DNA molecules/nucleus. ECTR DNA in ALT cells exhibit striking cell-to-cell variations in number (<20 to >300), range widely in length (<1 to >200 kb) and are composed of primarily G- or C-strand telomere-repeat DNA. Halo-FISH enables, for the first time, the simultaneous analysis of ECTR DNA and chromosomal telomeres in a single cell. We find that ECTR DNA comprises ∼15% of telomere-repeat DNA in GM847 and VA13 cells, but <4% in U2OS cells. In addition to its use in ALT cell analysis, Halo-FISH can facilitate the study of a wide variety of extrachromosomal DNA in mammalian cells.