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  1. 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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  2. Abstract Key points

    Ultrafast spectroscopy reveals FRET in action and inhomogeneous populations with different transition dipole moment alignments.

    Rational protein design of two new superfolder GFP mutants with record‐high fluorogenicity.

    Bioimaging application of the designed bioorthogonal protein mutant in live eukaryotic cells.

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  3. Abstract

    Large Stokes shift (LSS) red fluorescent proteins (RFPs) are highly desirable for bioimaging advances. The RFP mKeima, with coexistingcis‐andtrans‐isomers, holds significance as an archetypal system for LSS emission due to excited‐state proton transfer (ESPT), yet the mechanisms remain elusive. We implemented femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy (FSRS) and various time‐resolved electronic spectroscopies, aided by quantum calculations, to dissect thecis‐ andtrans‐mKeima photocycle from ESPT, isomerization, to ground‐state proton transfer in solution. This work manifests the power of FSRS with global analysis to resolve Raman fingerprints of intermediate states. Importantly, the deprotonatedtrans‐isomer governs LSS emission at 620 nm, while the deprotonatedcis‐isomer's 520 nm emission is weak due to an ultrafastcis‐to‐transisomerization. Complementary spectroscopic techniques as a table‐top toolset are thus essential to study photochemistry in physiological environments.

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  4. Abstract

    Recent advances in sustainable optoelectronics including photovoltaics, light‐emitting diodes, transistors, and semiconductors have been enabled by π‐conjugated organic molecules. A fundamental understanding of light‐matter interactions involving these materials can be realized by time‐resolved electronic and vibrational spectroscopies. In this Minireview, the photoinduced mechanisms including charge/energy transfer, electronic (de)localization, and excited‐state proton transfer are correlated with functional properties encompassing optical absorption, fluorescence quantum yield, conductivity, and photostability. Four naturally derived molecules (xylindein, dimethylxylindein, alizarin, indigo) with ultrafast spectral insights showcase efficient energy dissipation involving H‐bonding networks and proton motions, which yield high photostability. Rational design principles derived from such investigations could increase the efficiency for light harvesting, triplet formation, and photosensitivity for improved and versatile optoelectronic performance.

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  5. Abstract

    Organic semiconductor materials have recently gained momentum due to their non‐toxicity, low cost, and sustainability. Xylindein is a remarkably photostable pigment secreted by fungi that grow on decaying wood, and its relatively strong electronic performance is enabled by π–π stacking and hydrogen‐bonding network that promote charge transport. Herein, femtosecond transient absorption spectroscopy with a near‐IR probe was used to unveil a rapid excited‐state intramolecular proton transfer reaction. Conformational motions potentially lead to a conical intersection that quenches fluorescence in the monomeric state. In concentrated solutions, nascent aggregates exhibit a faster excited state lifetime due to excimer formation, confirmed by the excimer→charge‐transfer excited‐state absorption band of the xylindein thin film, thus limiting its optoelectronic performance. Therefore, extending the xylindein sidechains with branched alkyl groups may hinder the excimer formation and improve optoelectronic properties of naturally derived materials.

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  6. Abstract

    The molecular mechanisms for the photoconversion of fluorescent proteins remain elusive owing to the challenges of monitoring chromophore structural dynamics during the light‐induced processes. We implemented time‐resolved electronic and stimulated Raman spectroscopies to reveal two hidden species of an engineered ancestral GFP‐like protein LEA, involving semi‐trapped protonated and trapped deprotonated chromophores en route to photoconversion in pH 7.9 buffer. A new dual‐illumination approach was examined, using 400 and 505 nm light simultaneously to achieve faster conversion and higher color contrast. Substitution of UV irradiation with visible light benefits bioimaging, while the spectral benchmark of a trapped chromophore with characteristic ring twisting and bridge‐H bending motions enables rational design of functional proteins. With the improved H‐bonding network and structural motions, the photoexcited chromophore could increase the photoswitching‐aided photoconversion while reducing trapped species.

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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. 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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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 15, 2024
  9. 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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  10. 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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