A fundamental feature of a eukaryotic cell membrane is the asymmetric arrangement of lipids in the two leaflets. A cell invests significant energy to maintain this asymmetry and utilizes it to regulate important biological processes such as apoptosis and vesiculation. Here, we employ fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) and imaging total internal reflection fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (ITIR-FCS) to differentiate the dynamics and organization of the exofacial and cytoplasmic leaflet of live mammalian cells. We characterize the biophysical properties of fluorescent analogues of phosphatidylcholine (PC), sphingomyelin (SM) and phosphatidylserine (PS) in two mammalian cell membranes. Due to their specific transverse membrane distribution, these probes allow leaflet specific investigation of the plasma membrane. We compare the results with regard to the different temporal and spatial resolution of the methods. Fluorescence lifetimes of fluorescent lipid analogues were found to be in a characteristic range for the liquid ordered phase in the outer leaflet and liquid disordered phase in the inner leaflet. The observation of a more fluid inner leaflet is supported by free diffusion in the inner leaflet with high average diffusion coefficients. The liquid ordered phase in the outer leaflet is accompanied by slower diffusion and diffusion with intermittent transient trapping. Our results show that the combination of FLIM and ITIR-FCS with specific fluorescent lipid analogues provides a powerful tool to investigate lateral and trans-bilayer characteristics of plasma membrane in live cells.
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