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J Fluoresc. 2007 Jul;17(4):406-17. Epub 2007 Apr 26.

New insights in the interpretation of tryptophan fluorescence : origin of the fluorescence lifetime and characterization of a new fluorescence parameter in proteins: the emission to excitation ratio.

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  • 1Laboratoire de Biophysique Moléculaire, Université des Sciences et Technologies de Lille, Bâtiment C6, 59655 Villeneuve d'Ascq Cédex, France.


Origin of tryptophan fluorescence is still up to these days a quiz which is not completely solved. Fluorescence emission properties of tryptophan within proteins are in general considered as the result of fluorophore interaction within its environment. For example, a low fluorescence quantum yield is supposed to be the consequence of an important fluorophore-environment interaction. However, are we sure that the fluorophore has been excited upon light absorption? What if fluorophore excitation did not occur as the result of internal conformation specific to the fluorophore environment? Are we sure that all absorbed energy is used for the excitation process? Fluorescence lifetimes of Trp residues are considered to originate from rotamers or conformers resulting from the rotation of the indole ring within the peptide bonds. However, how can we explain the fact that in most of the proteins, the two lifetimes 0.5 and 3 ns, attributed to the conformers, are also observed for free tryptophan in solution? The present work, performed on free tryptophan and tyrosine in solution and on different proteins, shows that absorption and excitation spectra overlap but their intensities at the different excitation wavelengths are not necessarily equal. Also, we found that fluorescence emission intensities recorded at different excitation wavelengths depend on the intensities at these excitation wavelengths and not on the optical densities. Thus, excitation is not equal to absorption. In our interpretation of the data, we consider that absorbed photons are not necessary used only for the excitation, part of them are used to reorganize fluorophore molecules in a new state (excited structure) and another part is used for the excitation process. A new parameter that characterizes the ratio of the number of emitted photons over the real number of photons used to excite the fluorophore can be defined. We call this parameter, the emission to excitation ratio. Since our results were observed for fluorophores free in solution and present within proteins, structural reorganization does not depend on the protein backbone. Thus, fluorescence lifetimes (0.5 and 3 ns) observed for tryptophan molecules result from the new structures obtained in the excited state. Our theory allows opening a new way in the understanding of the origin of protein fluorescence and fluorescence of aromatic amino acids.

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