Intercellular mRNA trafficking via membrane nanotube-like extensions in mammalian cells

Gal Haimovich, Christopher M. Ecker, Margaret C. Dunagin, Elliott Eggan, Arjun Raj, Jeffrey E. Gerst, Robert H. Singer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


RNAs have been shown to undergo transfer between mammalian cells, although the mechanism behind this phenomenon and its overall importance to cell physiology is not well understood. Numerous publications have suggested that RNAs (microRNAs and incomplete mRNAs) undergo transfer via extracellular vesicles (e.g., exosomes). However, in contrast to a diffusion-based transfer mechanism, we find that full-length mRNAs undergo direct cell–cell transfer via cytoplasmic extensions characteristic of membrane nanotubes (mNTs), which connect donor and acceptor cells. By employing a simple coculture experimental model and using single-molecule imaging, we provide quantitative data showing that mRNAs are transferred between cells in contact. Examples of mRNAs that undergo transfer include those encoding GFP, mouse β-actin, and human Cyclin D1, BRCA1, MT2A, and HER2. We show that intercellular mRNA transfer occurs in all coculture models tested (e.g., between primary cells, immortalized cells, and in cocultures of immortalized human and murine cells). Rapid mRNA transfer is dependent upon actin but is independent of de novo protein synthesis and is modulated by stress conditions and gene-expression levels. Hence, this work supports the hypothesis that full-length mRNAs undergo transfer between cells through a refined structural connection. Importantly, unlike the transfer of miRNA or RNA fragments, this process of communication transfers genetic information that could potentially alter the acceptor cell proteome. This phenomenon may prove important for the proper development and functioning of tissues as well as for host–parasite or symbiotic interactions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E9873-E9882
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number46
StatePublished - Nov 14 2017


  • MS2
  • Membrane nanotubes
  • smFISH
  • β-actin mRNA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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