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The transcriptional machinery in individual cells is controlled by a relatively small number of molecules, which may result in stochastic behavior in gene activity. Because of technical limitations in current collection and recording methods, most gene expression measurements are carried out on populations of cells and therefore reflect average mRNA levels. The variability of the transcript levels between different cells remains undefined, although it may have profound effects on cellular activities. Here we have measured gene expression levels of the five genes ActB, Ins1, Ins2, Abcc8, and Kcnj11 in individual cells from mouse pancreatic islets. Whereas Ins1 and Ins2 expression show a strong cell-cell correlation, this is not the case for the other genes. We further found that the transcript levels of the different genes are lognormally distributed. Hence, the geometric mean of expression levels provides a better estimate of gene activity of the typical cell than does the arithmetic mean measured on a cell population.

Original publication




Journal article


Genome Res

Publication Date





1388 - 1392


Animals, Cells, Cultured, DNA, Complementary, Gene Expression Profiling, Islets of Langerhans, Mice, Polymerase Chain Reaction, RNA, Messenger