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  1. 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.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 15, 2024
  2. 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 formore »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.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available August 1, 2024
  3. 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 delineationmore »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.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available April 1, 2024
  4. 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.
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available February 1, 2024
  5. 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 tomore »a larger dynamic range and potentially higher fluorescence quantum yield, which should be broadly applicable to the calcium imaging and biosensor communities.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available February 1, 2024
  6. 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 themore »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.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 1, 2024
  7. Free, publicly-accessible full text available January 1, 2024
  8. Twisting intramolecular charge transfer (TICT) is a common nonradiative relaxation pathway for a molecule with a flexible substituent, effectively reducing the fluorescence quantum yield (FQY) by swift twisting motions. In this work, we investigate coumarin 481 (C481) that contains a diethylamino group in solution by femtosecond transient absorption (fs-TA), femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS), and theoretical calculations, aided by coumarin 153 with conformational locking of the alkyl arms as a control sample. In different solvents with decreasing polarity, the transition energy barrier between the fluorescent state and TICT state increases, leading to an increase of the FQY. Correlating the fluorescence decay time constant with solvent polarity and viscosity parameters, the multivariable linear regression analysis indicates that the chromophore’s nonradiative relaxation pathway is affected by both hydrogen (H)-bond donating and accepting capabilities as well as dipolarity of the solvent. Results from the ground- and excited-state FSRS shed important light on structural dynamics of C481 undergoing prompt light-induced intramolecular charge transfer from the diethylamino group toward –C=O and –CF3 groups, while the excited-state C=O stretch marker band tracks initial solvation and vibrational cooling dynamics in aprotic and protic solvents (regardless of polarity) as well as H-bonding dynamics in the fluorescent state formore »C481 in high-polarity protic solvents like methanol. The uncovered mechanistic insights into the molecular origin for the fluorogenicity of C481 as an environment-polarity sensor substantiate the generality of ultrafast TICT state formation of flexible molecules in solution, and the site-dependent substituent(s) as an effective route to modulate the fluorescence properties for such compact, engineerable, and versatile chemosensors.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available October 1, 2023
  9. Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 1, 2024
  10. The advancement of super-resolution imaging (SRI) relies on fluorescent proteins with novel photochromic properties. Using light, the reversibly switchable fluorescent proteins (RSFPs) can be converted between bright and dark states for many photocycles and their emergence has inspired the invention of advanced SRI techniques. The general photoswitching mechanism involves the chromophore cis-trans isomerization and proton transfer for negative and positive RSFPs and hydration–dehydration for decoupled RSFPs. However, a detailed understanding of these processes on ultrafast timescales (femtosecond to millisecond) is lacking, which fundamentally hinders the further development of RSFPs. In this review, we summarize the current progress of utilizing various ultrafast electronic and vibrational spectroscopies, and time-resolved crystallography in investigating the on/off photoswitching pathways of RSFPs. We show that significant insights have been gained for some well-studied proteins, but the real-time “action” details regarding the bidirectional cis-trans isomerization, proton transfer, and intermediate states remain unclear for most systems, and many other relevant proteins have not been studied yet. We expect this review to lay the foundation and inspire more ultrafast studies on existing and future engineered RSFPs. The gained mechanistic insights will accelerate the rational development of RSFPs with enhanced two-way switching rate and efficiency, better photostability, higher brightness, andmore »redder emission colors.« less