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Biophys J. 2010 Aug 4;99(3):961-70. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2010.04.063.

Optimizing methods to recover absolute FRET efficiency from immobilized single molecules.

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Department of Pharmacology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, USA.


Microscopy-based fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) experiments measure donor and acceptor intensities by isolating these signals with a series of optical elements. Because this filtering discards portions of the spectrum, the observed FRET efficiency is dependent on the set of filters in use. Similarly, observed FRET efficiency is also affected by differences in fluorophore quantum yield. Recovering the absolute FRET efficiency requires normalization for these effects to account for differences between the donor and acceptor fluorophores in their quantum yield and detection efficiency. Without this correction, FRET is consistent across multiple experiments only if the photophysical and instrument properties remain unchanged. Here we present what is, to our knowledge, the first systematic study of methods to recover the true FRET efficiency using DNA rulers with known fluorophore separations. We varied optical elements to purposefully alter observed FRET and examined protein samples to achieve quantum yields distinct from those in the DNA samples. Correction for calculated instrument transmission reduced FRET deviations, which can facilitate comparison of results from different instruments. Empirical normalization was more effective but required significant effort. Normalization based on single-molecule photobleaching was the most effective depending on how it is applied. Surprisingly, per-molecule gamma-normalization reduced the peak width in the DNA FRET distribution because anomalous gamma-values correspond to FRET outliers. Thus, molecule-to-molecule variation in gamma has an unrecognized effect on the FRET distribution that must be considered to extract information on sample dynamics from the distribution width.

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