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  1. Abstract

    Here, four MOFs, namely Sc-TBAPy, Al-TBAPy, Y-TBAPy, and Fe-TBAPy (TBAPy: 1,3,6,8-tetrakis(p-benzoic acid)pyrene), were characterized and evaluated for their ability to remediate glyphosate (GP) from water. Among these materials, Sc-TBAPy demonstrates superior performance in both the adsorption and degradation of GP. Upon light irradiation for 5 min, Sc-TBAPy completely degrades 100% of GP in a 1.5 mM aqueous solution. Femtosecond transient absorption spectroscopy reveals that Sc-TBAPy exhibits enhanced charge transfer character compared to the other MOFs, as well as suppressed formation of emissive excimers that could impede photocatalysis. This finding was further supported by hydrogen evolution half-reaction (HER) experiments, which demonstrated Sc-TBAPy’s superior catalytic activity for water splitting. In addition to its faster adsorption and more efficient photodegradation of GP, Sc-TBAPy also followed a selective pathway towards the oxidation of GP, avoiding the formation of toxic aminomethylphosphonic acid observed with the other M3+-TBAPy MOFs. To investigate the selectivity observed with Sc-TBAPy, electron spin resonance, depleted oxygen conditions, and solvent exchange with D2O were employed to elucidate the role of different reactive oxygen species on GP photodegradation. The findings indicate that singlet oxygen (1O2) plays a critical role in the selective photodegradation pathway achieved by Sc-TBAPy.

     
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available December 1, 2025
  2. Metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) have emerged as a highly tunable class of porous materials with wide-ranging applications from gas capture to photocatalysis. Developing these exciting properties to their fullest extent requires a thorough mechanistic understanding of the structure–function relationships. We implement an ultrafast spectroscopic toolset, femtosecond transient absorption and femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS), to elucidate the correlated electronic and vibrational dynamics of two isostructural 1,3,6,8-tetrakis(p-benzoic acid)pyrene (TBAPy)-based MOFs, which manifest drastically different photocatalytic behaviors. Systematic comparisons between the M3+-TBAPy MOFs and bare ligands in various environments reveal the unproductive dimer formation in Al-TBAPy, whereas Sc-TBAPy is dominated by a catalytically active charge-transfer (CT) process. Two ground-state FSRS marker bands of the TBAPy ligand at ∼1267 and 1617 cm−1 probe the chromophore environment at thermal equilibrium. For comparison, the excited-state FSRS of Sc-TBAPy suspended in neutral water unveils a key ∼300 fs twisting motion of the TBAPy peripheral phenyl groups toward planarity, promoting an efficient generation of CT species. This motion also exhibits high sensitivity to solvent environment, which can be a useful probe; we also showed the CT variation for ultrafast dynamics of Sc-TBAPy in the glyphosate aqueous solution. These new insights showcase the power of table-top tunable FSRS methodology to delineate structural dynamics of functional molecular systems in action, including MOFs and other photosensitive “nanomachines.” We expect the uncovered ligand motions (ultrafast planarization) to enable the targeted design of new MOFs with improved CT state characteristics (formation and lifetime) to power applications, including photocatalysis and herbicide removal from waterways. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 1, 2025
  3. The incorporation of noncanonical amino acids (ncAAs) into fluorescent proteins is promising for red-shifting their fluorescence and benefiting tissue imaging with deep penetration and low phototoxicity. However, ncAA-based red fluorescent proteins (RFPs) have been rare. The 3-aminotyrosine modified superfolder green fluorescent protein (aY-sfGFP) represents a recent advance, yet the molecular mechanism for its red-shifted fluorescence remains elusive while its dim fluorescence hinders applications. Herein, we implement femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy to obtain structural fingerprints in the electronic ground state and reveal that aY-sfGFP possesses a GFP-like instead of RFP-like chromophore. Red color of aY-sfGFP intrinsically arises from a unique “double-donor” chromophore structure that raises ground-state energy and enhances charge transfer, notably differing from the conventional conjugation mechanism. We further developed two aY-sfGFP mutants (E222H and T203H) with significantly improved (∼12-fold higher) brightness by rationally restraining the chromophore's nonradiative decay through electronic and steric effects, aided by solvatochromic and fluorogenic studies of the model chromophore in solution. This study thus provides functional mechanisms and generalizable insights into ncAA-RFPs with an efficient route for engineering redder and brighter fluorescent proteins. 
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  4. Proton transfer processes of organic molecules are key to charge transport and photoprotection in biological systems. Among them, excited-state intramolecular proton transfer (ESIPT) reactions are characterized by quick and efficient charge transfer within a molecule, resulting in ultrafast proton motions. The ESIPT-facilitated interconversion between two tautomers (PS and PA) comprising the tree fungal pigment Draconin Red in solution was investigated using a combination of targeted femtosecond transient absorption (fs-TA) and excited-state femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (ES-FSRS) measurements. Transient intensity (population and polarizability) and frequency (structural and cooling) dynamics of –COH rocking and –C=C, –C=O stretching modes following directed stimulation of each tautomer elucidate the excitation-dependent relaxation pathways, particularly the bidirectional ESIPT progression out of the Franck–Condon region to the lower-lying excited state, of the intrinsically heterogeneous chromophore in dichloromethane solvent. A characteristic overall excited-state PS-to-PA transition on the picosecond timescale leads to a unique “W”-shaped excited-state Raman intensity pattern due to dynamic resonance enhancement with the Raman pump–probe pulse pair. The ability to utilize quantum mechanics calculations in conjunction with steady-state electronic absorption and emission spectra to induce disparate excited-state populations in an inhomogeneous mixture of similar tautomers has broad implications for the modeling of potential energy surfaces and delineation of reaction mechanisms in naturally occurring chromophores. Such fundamental insights afforded by in-depth analysis of ultrafast spectroscopic datasets are also beneficial for future development of sustainable materials and optoelectronics. 
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  5. Abstract

    Understanding the structure‐function relationships of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) chromophore is important in rationally developing new molecular tools for biological imaging and beyond. Herein, we systematically modified the GFP chromophore structure with electron‐withdrawing and ‐donating groups (EWGs and EDGs) to investigate the substituent effects on the excited‐state proton transfer (ESPT) and twisting dynamics of the cationic chromophore in solution. With key insights gained from femtosecond transient absorption and stimulated Raman spectroscopy, we reveal that the EWG substitution by –F increases photoacidity in an additive manner and leads to an ultrafast barrierless ESPT by difluorination, while the EDG substitution by –OCH3also results in ultrafast ESPT despite the weak photoacidity as estimated by the Förster equation. We ascribe the unusually fast kinetics in methoxylated derivatives to the occurrence of a pre‐existing chromophore‐solvent complex that sets up the acceptor site for ESPT. Furthermore, the kinetic competition between ESPT and twisting pathways is crucial for the observation of ESPT in action, particularly for molecules undergoing efficient nonradiative decay in the excited state through torsional motions. Such flexible and highly engineerable molecules can enable more versatile photoswitches and sensors.

     
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  6. Amine groups are common constituents of organic dyes and play important roles in tuning fluorescence properties. In particular, intensive research works have demonstrated the tendency and capabilities of amines in influencing chromophore brightness. Such properties have been explained by multiple mechanisms spanning from twisted intramolecular charge transfer (TICT) to the energy gap law and beyond, which introduce additional nonradiative energy dissipation pathways. In this review, we aim to provide a focused overview of the mechanistic insights mainly for the TICT mechanism, accompanied by a few other less common or influential fluorescence quenching mechanisms in the amine-containing fluorescent molecules. Various aspects of current scientific findings including the rational design and synthesis of organic chromophores, theoretical calculations, steady-state and time-resolved electronic and vibrational spectroscopies are reviewed. These in-depth understandings of how the amine groups with diverse chemical structures at various atomic sites affect excited-state nonradiative decay pathways will facilitate the strategic and targeted development of fluorophores with desired emission properties as versatile chemosensors for broad applications. 
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  7. The versatile functions of fluorescent proteins (FPs) as fluorescence biomarkers depend on their intrinsic chromophores interacting with the protein environment. Besides X-ray crystallography, vibrational spectroscopy represents a highly valuable tool for characterizing the chromophore structure and revealing the roles of chromophore–environment interactions. In this work, we aim to benchmark the ground-state vibrational signatures of a series of FPs with emission colors spanning from green, yellow, orange, to red, as well as the solvated model chromophores for some of these FPs, using wavelength-tunable femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS) in conjunction with quantum calculations. We systematically analyzed and discussed four factors underlying the vibrational properties of FP chromophores: sidechain structure, conjugation structure, chromophore conformation, and the protein environment. A prominent bond-stretching mode characteristic of the quinoidal resonance structure is found to be conserved in most FPs and model chromophores investigated, which can be used as a vibrational marker to interpret chromophore–environment interactions and structural effects on the electronic properties of the chromophore. The fundamental insights gained for these light-sensing units (e.g., protein active sites) substantiate the unique and powerful capability of wavelength-tunable FSRS in delineating FP chromophore properties with high sensitivity and resolution in solution and protein matrices. The comprehensive characterization for various FPs across a colorful palette could also serve as a solid foundation for future spectroscopic studies and the rational engineering of FPs with diverse and improved functions. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2024
  8. Fluorescent proteins (FPs) are indispensable tools for noninvasive bioimaging and sensing. Measuring the free cellular calcium (Ca2+) concentrations in vivo with genetically encodable FPs can be a relatively direct measure of neuronal activity due to the complex signaling role of these ions. REX-GECO1 is a recently developed red-green emission and excitation ratiometric FP-based biosensor that achieves a high dynamic range due to differences in the chromophore response to light excitation with and without calcium ions. Using steady-state electronic measurements (UV/Visible absorption and emission), along with time-resolved spectroscopic techniques including femtosecond transient absorption (fs-TA) and femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS), the potential energy surfaces of these unique biosensors are unveiled with vivid details. The ground-state structural characterization of the Ca2+-free biosensor via FSRS reveals a more spacious protein pocket that allows the chromophore to efficiently twist and reach a dark state. In contrast, the more compressed cavity within the Ca2+-bound biosensor results in a more heterogeneous distribution of chromophore populations that results in multi-step excited state proton transfer (ESPT) pathways on the sub-140 fs, 600 fs, and 3 ps timescales. These results enable rational design strategies to enlarge the spectral separation between the protonated/deprotonated forms and the Stokes shift leading to a larger dynamic range and potentially higher fluorescence quantum yield, which should be broadly applicable to the calcium imaging and biosensor communities. 
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  9. Nitrophenols are a group of small organic molecules with significant environmental implications from the atmosphere to waterways. In this work, we investigate a series of nitrophenols and nitrophenolates, with the contrasting ortho-, meta-, and para-substituted nitro group to the phenolic hydroxy or phenolate oxygen site (2/3/4NP or NP−), implementing a suite of steady-state and time-resolved spectroscopic techniques that include UV/Visible spectroscopy, femtosecond transient absorption (fs-TA) spectroscopy with probe-dependent and global analysis, and femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS), aided by quantum calculations. The excitation-dependent (400 and 267 nm) electronic dynamics in water and methanol, for six protonated or deprotonated nitrophenol molecules (three regioisomers in each set), enable a systematic investigation of the excited-state dynamics of these functional “nanomachines” that can undergo nitro-group twisting (as a rotor), excited-state intramolecular or intermolecular proton transfer (donor–acceptor, ESIPT, or ESPT), solvation, and cooling (chromophore) events on molecular timescales. In particular, the meta-substituted compound 3NP or 3NP− exhibits the strongest charge-transfer character with FSRS signatures (e.g., C–N peak frequency), and thus, does not favor nitroaromatic twist in the excited state, while the ortho-substituted compound 2NP can undergo ESIPT in water and likely generate nitrous acid (HONO) after 267 nm excitation. The delineated mechanistic insights into the nitro-substituent-location-, protonation-, solvent-, and excitation-wavelength-dependent effects on nitrophenols, in conjunction with the ultraviolet-light-induced degradation of 2NP in water, substantiates an appealing discovery loop to characterize and engineer functional molecules for environmental applications. 
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  10. Abstract

    Red fluorescent proteins (RFPs) represent an increasingly popular class of genetically encodable bioprobes and biomarkers that can advance next‐generation breakthroughs across the imaging and life sciences. Since the rational design of RFPs with improved functions or enhanced versatility requires a mechanistic understanding of their working mechanisms, while fluorescence is intrinsically an ultrafast event, a suitable toolset involving steady‐state and time‐resolved spectroscopic techniques has become powerful in delineating key structural features and dynamic steps which govern irreversible photoconverting or reversible photoswitching RFPs, and large Stokes shift (LSS)RFPs. The pertinentcistransisomerization and protonation state change of RFP chromophores in their local environments, involving key residues in protein matrices, lead to rich and complicated spectral features across multiple timescales. In particular, ultrafast excited‐state proton transfer in various LSSRFPs showcases the resolving power of wavelength‐tunable femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS) in mapping a photocycle with crucial knowledge about the red‐emitting species. Moreover, recent progress in noncanonical RFPs with a site‐specifically modified chromophore provides an appealing route for efficient engineering of redder and brighter RFPs, highly desirable for bioimaging. Such an effective feedback loop involving physical chemists, protein engineers, and biomedical microscopists will enable future successes to expand fundamental knowledge and improve human health.

     
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