Methods that allow monitoring of individual cells over time, using live cell imaging, are essential for studying dynamical cellular processes in heterogeneous cell populations such as primary T lymphocytes. However, applying single cell time-lapse microscopy to study activation and differentiation of these cells was limited due to a number of reasons. First, primary naïve T cells are non-adherent and become highly motile upon activation through their antigen receptor. Second, CD4+ T cell differentiation is a relatively slow process which takes 3–4 days. As a result, long-term dynamic monitoring of individual cells during the course of activation and differentiation is challenging as cells rapidly escape out of the microscope field of view. Here we present and characterize a platform which enables capture and growth of primary T lymphocytes with minimal perturbation, allowing for long-term monitoring of cell activation and differentiation. We use standard cell culture plates combined with PDMS based arrays containing thousands of deep microwells in which primary CD4+ T cells are trapped and activated by antigen coated microbeads. We demonstrate that this system allows for live cell imaging of individual T cells for up to 72 h, providing quantitative data on cell proliferation and death times. In addition, we continuously monitor dynamics of gene expression in those cells, of either intracellular proteins using cells from transgenic mice expressing fluorescent reporter proteins, or cell surface proteins using fluorescently labeled antibodies. Finally, we show how intercellular interactions between different cell types can be investigated using our device. This system provides a new platform in which dynamical processes and intercellular interactions within heterogeneous populations of primary T cells can be studied at the single cell level.
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