Improving the two-photon absorption properties of fluorescent proteins for neuroscience

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Untangling the intricacies of the brain requires innovative tools that power basic research. Fluorescent proteins, first discovered in jellyfish, provide a genetically encodable way to light up the brains of animal models such as mice and fruit flies. They have been made into biosensors that change fluorescence in response to markers of neural activity such as calcium ions (Ca 2+). To visualize them, neuroscientists take advantage of two-photon excitation microscopy, a specialized type of imaging that can reveal crisp fluorescence images deep in the brain. Fluorescent proteins behave differently under twophoton excitation compared to one-photon excitation. Their inherent two-photon properties, namely brightness and peak absorption wavelength, limit the scope of possible experiments to investigate the brain. This work aims to understand and improve these properties through three projects: characterizing a set of red fluorescent protein-based Ca 2+ indicators; finding two-photon brighter green fluorescent proteins; and developing an instrument to screen for improved fluorescent proteins for two-photon microscopy. Analyzing nine red Ca 2+ indicators shows that they can be separated into three classes based on how their properties change in a Ca 2+-dependent manner. In one of these classes, the relative changes in one-photon properties are different from the changes in two-photon properties. In addition to characterizing, identifying and directly improving fluorescent proteins for enhanced two-photon properties is important. Presented here is a physical model of the light-absorbing molecule within the green fluorescent protein (the chromophore). The model predicts that green fluorescent proteins absorbing at higher energy wavelengths will be brighter under two-photon excitation. This proves to be the case for 12 blueshifted green fluorescent proteins, which are up to 2.5 times brighter than the commonly used Enhanced Green Fluorescent Protein. A way to directly improve fluorescent proteins is through directed evolution, but screening under two-photon excitation is a challenge. An instrument, called the GIZMO, solves this challenge and can evolve fluorescent proteins expressed in E. coli colonies under two-photon excitation. These results pave the way for better two-photon fluorescent protein-based tools for neuroscience.




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