Electronic tuning of self-healing fluorophores for live-cell and single-molecule imaging
Bright, long-lasting organic fluorophores enable a broad range of imaging applications. "Self-healing" fluorophores, in which intra-molecularly linked protective agents quench photo-induced reactive species, exhibit both enhanced photostability and biological compatibility. However, the self-healing strategy has yet to achieve its predicted potential, particularly in the presence of ambient oxygen where live-cell imaging studies must often be performed. To identify key bottlenecks in this technology that can be used to guide further engineering developments, we synthesized a series of Cy5 derivatives linked to the protective agent cyclooctatetraene (COT) and examined the photophysical mechanisms curtailing their performance. The data obtained reveal that the photostability of self-healing fluorophores is limited by reactivity of the COT protective agent. The addition of electron withdrawing substituents to COT reduced its susceptibility to reactions with molecular oxygen and the fluorophore to which it is attached and increased its capacity to participate in triplet energy transfer. Exploiting these insights, we designed and synthesized a suite of modified COT-fluorophores spanning the visible spectrum that exhibited markedly increased intra-molecular photostabilization. Under ambient oxygen conditions, the photostability of Cy3 and Cy5 fluorophore derivatives increased by 3- and 9-fold in vitro and by 2- and 6-fold in living cells, respectively. We further show that this approach can improve a silicon rhodamine fluorophore. These findings offer a clear strategy for achieving the full potential of the self-healing strategy and its application to the gamut of fluorophore species commonly used for biomedical imaging.