FRET-based small-molecule fluorescent probes: rational design and bioimaging applications

Lin Yuan, Weiying Lin, Kaibo Zheng, Sasa Zhu
Accounts of Chemical Research 2013 July 16, 46 (7): 1462-73
Fluorescence imaging has emerged as a powerful tool for monitoring biomolecules within the context of living systems with high spatial and temporal resolution. Researchers have constructed a large number of synthetic intensity-based fluorescent probes for bio-imaging. However, intensity-based fluorescent probes have some limitations: variations in probe concentration, probe environment, and excitation intensity may influence the fluorescence intensity measurements. In principle, the use of ratiometric fluorescent probes can alleviate this shortcoming. Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) is one of the most widely used sensing mechanisms for ratiometric fluorescent probes. However, the development of synthetic FRET probes with favorable photophysical properties that are also suitable for biological imaging applications remains challenging. In this Account, we review the rational design and biological applications of synthetic FRET probes, focusing primarily on studies from our laboratory. To construct useful FRET probes, it is a pre-requisite to develop a FRET platform with favorable photophysical properties. The design criteria of a FRET platform include (1) well-resolved absorption spectra of the donor and acceptor, (2) well-separated emission spectra of the donor and acceptor, (3) donors and acceptors with comparable brightness, (4) rigid linkers, and (5) near-perfect efficiency in energy transfer. With an efficient FRET platform in hand, it is then necessary to modulate the donor-acceptor distance or spectral overlap integral in an analyte-dependent fashion for development of FRET probes. Herein, we emphasize our most recent progress on the development of FRET probes by spectral overlap integral, in particular by changing the molar absorption coefficient of the donor dyes such as rhodamine dyes, which undergo unique changes in the absorption profiles during the ring-opening and -closing processes. Although partial success has been obtained in design of first-generation rhodamine-based FRET probes via modulation of acceptor molar absorption coefficient, further improvements in terms of versatility, sensitivity, and synthetic accessibility are required. To address these issues with the first-generation rhodamine-based FRET probes, we have proposed a strategy for the design of second-generation probes. As a demonstration, we have developed FRET imaging probes for diverse targets including Cu²⁺, NO, HOCl, cysteine, and H₂O₂. This discussion of the methods for successfully designing synthetic FRET probes underscores the rational basis for further development of new FRET probes as a molecular toolbox for probing and manipulating a wide variety of biomolecules in living systems.

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