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Methods Appl Fluoresc. 2019 Feb 19;7(2):025002. doi: 10.1088/2050-6120/ab0242.

Macromolecular crowding effects on energy transfer efficiency and donor-acceptor distance of hetero-FRET sensors using time-resolved fluorescence.

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Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Swenson College of Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota Duluth, Duluth, MN, United States of America.


Living cells are crowded with macromolecules and organelles, which affect a myriad of biochemical processes. As a result, there is a need for sensitive molecular sensors for quantitative, site-specific assessment of macromolecular crowding. Here, we investigated the excited-state dynamics of recently developed hetero-FRET sensors (mCerulean3-linker-mCitrine) in homogeneous and heterogeneous environments using time-resolved fluorescence measurements, which are compatible with fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM). The linker in these FRET constructs, which tether the mCerulean3 (the donor) and mCitrine (the acceptor), vary in both length and flexibility. Glycerol and Ficoll-70 solutions were used for homogeneous and heterogeneous environments, respectively, at variable concentrations. The wavelength-dependent studies suggest that the 425-nm excitation and the 475-nm emission of the donor are best suited for quantitative assessment of the energy transfer efficiency and the donor-acceptor distance of these FRET probes. Under the same experimental conditions, the enzymatically cleaved counterpart of these probes was used as a control as well as a means to account for the changes in the environmental refractive indices. Our results indicate that the energy transfer efficiency of these FRET probes increases as the linker becomes shorter and more flexible in pure buffer at room temperature. In addition, the FRET probes favor a compact structure with enhanced energy transfer efficiency and a shorter donor-acceptor distance in the heterogeneous, polymer-crowded environment due to steric hindrance. In contrast, the stretched conformation of these FRET probes is more favorable in the viscous, homogeneous environment with a reduced energy transfer efficiency and relatively larger donor-acceptor distance as compared with those in pure buffer, which was attributed to a reduced structural fluctuation of the mCerulean3-mCitrine FRET pair in the viscous, more restrictive glycerol-enriched buffer. Our findings will help to advance the potential of these hetero-FRET probes using FLIM for spatio-temporal assessment of the compartmentalized crowding in living cells.


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