Quantifying protein oligomerization in living cells: A systematic comparison of fluorescent proteins
Fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy has become a popular toolbox for non-disruptive studies of molecular interactions and dynamics in living cells. The quantification of e.g. protein oligomerization and absolute concentrations in the native cellular environment is highly relevant for a detailed understanding of complex signaling pathways and biochemical reaction networks. A parameter of particular relevance in this context is the molecular brightness, which serves as a direct measure of oligomerization and can be easily extracted from temporal or spatial fluorescence fluctuations. However, fluorescent proteins (FPs) typically used in such studies suffer from complex photophysical transitions and limited maturation, potentially inducing non-fluorescent states, which strongly affect molecular brightness measurements. Although these processes have been occasionally reported, a comprehensive study addressing this issue is missing. Here, we investigate the suitability of commonly used FPs (i.e. mEGFP, mEYFP and mCherry), as well as novel red FPs (i.e. mCherry2, mRuby3, mCardinal, mScarlet and mScarlet-I) for the quantification of oligomerization based on the molecular brightness, as obtained by Fluorescence Correlation Spectroscopy (FCS) and Number&Brightness (N&B) measurements in living cells. For all FPs, we measured a lower than expected brightness of FP homo-dimers, allowing us to estimate, for each fluorescent label, the probability of fluorescence emission in a simple two-state model. By analyzing higher FP homo-oligomers and the Influenza A virus Hemagglutinin (HA) protein, we show that the oligomeric state of protein complexes can only be accurately quantified if this probability is taken into account. Further, we provide strong evidence that mCherry2, an mCherry variant, possesses a superior apparent fluorescence probability, presumably due to its fast maturation. We finally conclude that this property leads to an improved quantification in fluorescence cross-correlation spectroscopy measurements and propose to use mEGFP and mCherry2 as the novel standard pair for studying biomolecular hetero-interactions.
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