Category Archives: Green protein

Roger Tsien – the scientist that colored our research

Roger Tsien died a few days ago, at the relatively young age of 64. He was a UCSD scientist, a Nobel laureate and he was one of the first to see the significance and usefulness of GFP.

I’ve never met him. But, I guess, this blogs owes him its existence.

I don’t want to discuss his body of work, his achievements, or awards he won (e.g. the Nobel award). Many wrote nice things about him, such as here, here or here and all over the internet, with nice pictures of fluorescent proteins used in research.

I thought it will be nice to look back at his first GFP paper.

title1

His goal in this paper was to investigate the formation of the fluorophore of GFP. Specifically, he asked:

“What is the mechanism of fluorophore formation? How does fluorescence relate to protein structure? Can its fluorescence properties be tailored and improved-in particular, to provide a second distinguishable color for comparison of independent proteins and gene expression events?”

Already here he looked to utilize GFP – to improve it, to change it, so it can be useful for fluorescent studies in biology.

He used random mutagenesis of the GFP cDNA to screen for mutants with altered brightness and emission. A simple yet powerful method, still used today, to find new FPs with exciting and useful properties.

Here is an ex/em spectral analysis of some of the mutants:

spectra

One mutant, I167T, proved to be almost twice as bright as the WT GFP protein.

But the most exciting was the finding of a blue FP (Y66H):

blue mutant

To sum up in his words:

“The availability of several forms of GFP with such different excitation and emission maxima [the most distinguishable pair being mutant P4 (Y66H) vs. mutant Pll (I167T)] should facilitate two-color assessment of differential gene expression, developmental fate, or protein trafficking. It may also be possible to use these GFP variants analogously to fluorescein and rhodamine to tag interacting proteins or subunits whose association could then be monitored dynamically in intact cells by fluorescence resonance energy transfer (19, 20). Such fluorescence labeling via gene fusion would be site-specific and would eliminate the present need to purify and label proteins in vitro and microinject them into cells.”

He saw the future, and it was bright green.

 
ResearchBlogging.orgHeim, R., Prasher, D., & Tsien, R. (1994). Wavelength mutations and posttranslational autoxidation of green fluorescent protein. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91 (26), 12501-12504 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.91.26.12501

Design guidlines for tandem fluorescent timers

Almost 4 years ago, I wrote a post on tandem fluorescent timers (tFTs). The idea is to have two different fluorescent proteins fused together to the protein of interest. In the paper from 4 years ago, it was superfolder GFP (sfGFP) and mCherry. sfGFP matures very fast (within minutes) and mCherry  matures more slowly (t1/2 ~40min). The ratio beween green to red fluorescent signal indicates the percentage of new vs old proteins, thus acts as a “timer”.  This latests paper on tFTs from the same group of Michael Knop’s lab, found that analyzing tFTs might be more complicated due to some possible problems of this system.

Continue reading

An excelent new tool for comparing fluorescent protein properties

Screenshot of the new tool

Screenshot of the new tool

Two very useful tools for visualizations of many fluorescent and photoswitchable proteins have been developed by Talley Lambert and Kurt Thorn (UCSF). Continue reading

The microscope’s light may affect your experiment

The conditions used for microscopy are often not “physiological” conditions. If we are talking about live imaging, then the cells are usually in culture, placed on a glass surface and grown in an artificial media. In many cases, we use genetically encoded fluorescent markers, that are rarely inert. These are acceptable and known limitations of the system.
However, when we think about microscopy, we do not often consider to effect of the light itself. The light we use can have deleterious effect. For instance, UV light is known to cause damage to cells, e.g. creating reactive oxygen species (ROS), creating thymidine dimers, cross-linking macromolecules and probably more. That is why people tend to limit the use of fluorescent proteins that are excited by UV light (such as blue fluorescent proteins or some photoactivated proteins).

Yet, visible light is considered relatively harmless. Now, a new study suggests that visible light, particularly blue-green light (which is used to excite green-yellow fluorescent proteins), can affect the metabolic state of the cell.  How?

Well, all cells contain light absorbing molecules. Some molecules function as light sensors or light energy harvesting molecules: Chlorophyll, cryptochromes, phytochromes, photoreceptors, rhodopsins, and fluorescent proteins. Other molecules absorb light, e.g. pigments.

However, some cells do not have obvious light sensitive molecules. For example, the budding yeast. In this paper, Carl H. Johnson’s lab looked at the effect of visible light on yeast respiratory oscillations (YRO) and oxidative stress. Apparently, under some conditions, yeast show 1-6hr oscillations of oxygen consumption and metabolite productions. surprisingly, shining white, blue or green light (but not red) has shortened the cycle  and decreased the amplitude of oxygen consumption. There was also increased expression of antioxidant enzymes, and increased light sensitivity to oxidative-stress mutants.

The effects of different spectra of light on the YRO. Oscillations were initiated in the dark until stable oscillations formed (black line, left y-axis). Then 12-h treatments of red, blue, or green light were administered (colored lines matching color of light, right y-axis) with 12 h of darkness between treatments. After the application of colored light, two 12-h white light treatments were given. Light intensities of each treatment are shown on the right y-axis and are indicated by numbers under each of the colored or gray lines showing light treatment. Source: Robertson J B et al. PNAS 2013;110:21130-21135

The effects of different spectra of light on the YRO. Oscillations were initiated in the dark until stable oscillations formed (black line, left y-axis). Then 12-h treatments of red, blue, or green light were administered (colored lines matching color of light, right y-axis) with 12 h of darkness between treatments. After the application of colored light, two 12-h white light treatments were given. Light intensities of each treatment are shown on the right y-axis and are indicated by numbers under each of the colored or gray lines showing light treatment. Source: Robertson J B et al. PNAS 2013;110:21130-21135

Based on several other assays, the authors suggests the blue-green light harms cytochromes in the respiratory electron transport process. Photoinhibition of the electron transport causes accumulation of ROS and oxidative stress response. It is hypothesized that the shortened oscillation periods and reduced amplitude of oxygen consumption (= less respiration) is a cellular mechanism to reduce the photoinhibition to electron transport, thus reduce oxidative damage.

What does this mean to microscopists?

It only suggests that long term exposure to light (either in prolonged live imaging, or just the incubation conditions) can affect the metabolic state of the cell and therefor may have either deleterious effect on the health of the cell, or create false positive or false negative results, particularly in experiments that are designed to study respiration and oxidative stress. Obviously, if you have light sensors or light harvesting molecules, their absorbance wavelengths need to be taken into account.

Practically, it is always a good advice to minimize the exposure to light (which we do anyway to reduce photobleaching).

ResearchBlogging.orgRobertson JB, Davis CR, & Johnson CH (2013). Visible light alters yeast metabolic rhythms by inhibiting respiration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110 (52), 21130-5 PMID: 24297928

Green Fluorescent sushi

Fluorescent proteins have been isolated from invertebrate species only, until now.  A group of researchers from Japan isolated a green fluorescent protein from the freshwater eel called Unagi (yes, the same Unagi used for sushi).

The protein, named UnaG, is smaller than GFP (139 amino acids compared to 237 of GFP), excited at 498nm (after bilirubin binding) and emits light at 527nm.

UnaG is a green fluorescent protein found in eel muscle. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

UnaG is a green fluorescent protein found in eel muscle. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

UnaG, glows in green upon noncovalent binding to bilirubin – a membrane permeable heme metabolite.  This is a major advantage, since this mechanism can be utilized as a fluorescent switch: add bilirubin–> get fluorescence; remove bilirubin–>remove fluorescent.

This unique characteristic of UnaG prompted the researchers to develop a sensitive assay to measure bilirubin levels in blood serum – a known biomarker for several human diseases. Their assay sensitivity is 100-fold better than current clinical assays, they claim.

Another big advantage of this protein is that its fluorescence is independent of oxygen (unlike GFP-based FPs).  UnaG can therefore be used under anaerobic conditions.

UnaG fluorescence depends on bilirubin, but not on oxygen. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

UnaG fluorescence depends on bilirubin, but not on oxygen. Source: Kumagai et al. (2013) Cell 153(7):1602-1611

The biological role of UnaG is still unknown, but it is suggested to have a function in oxidative stress.

I think that this is just the opening shot for the search for more vertebrate fluorescent proteins…

Read a research highlight from Nature Methods.

Unagi, from “Friends”:

ResearchBlogging.orgKumagai A, Ando R, Miyatake H, Greimel P, Kobayashi T, Hirabayashi Y, Shimogori T, & Miyawaki A (2013). A bilirubin-inducible fluorescent protein from eel muscle. Cell, 153 (7), 1602-11 PMID: 23768684

Cells reach out their “hands” to create new limbs

Communication between cells takes many forms. There could be communication by sending out microvesicles with important messages inside, by sending out free molecules (like hormones) or by special structures (e.g. synapses).

Sonic hedgehog (SHH) is a signaling protein that is important for the development of vertebrate limbs. It was thought to be release from a small group of cells at the posterior end of the limb bud, and is recognized by receptors on cells a long distance away.

Not this Sonic Hedgehog… (image taken from http://sonic.wikia.com)

A new paper publish in Nature from Maria Barna’s lab shows that SHH actually remains bound on the external side of the cells that produce it. The cells simply send very long thin protrusions (here named filopodia) that reach all the way to similar filopodia of the receiving cells.

I think that not only the story is very novel and interesting, but the images are very pretty.

Several “technical” issues:

In order to study the SHH signaling in live chick embryos, they designed a custom made live in ovo microscopy system: a temperature controlled plate; on it an egg container chamber, and an objective that is dipping into the yoke.

They show that standard fixation methods (e.g formaldehyde) destroy these filopodia. Also, a volume marker (in this case sfGFP) that just fills the cytoplasm does not give a strong enough signal to detect these filopodia (possibly since they are very thin, and packed with actin filaments  and other proteins, so there’s very little free volume left).

So, they used palmitoylated fluorescent proteins, pmeGFP (green) and pmKate2 (red) that target them to the plasma membrane. This enabled them to visualize these very thin and long filopodia. Here’s a video movie from their paper.

They use a variety of cytoskeletal proteins fused to EGFP or to mKate2 to learn about the structure of these filopodia. Their conclusion is that these structures contain only a specialized form of actin filaments.

They show beautifully that SHH (fused to EGFP) travels to the tip of these filopodia:

They used a split GFP technology to show that SHH is actually found on the outside of the cell membrane.  In split GFP, two fusion proteins are produced, each one is fused to “half” of a GFP protein (its not exactly half but let not go into that now). If the two fused proteins are in close proximity, the two halves associate to produce an GFP that fluoresce irreversibly. The two separate halves do no fluoresce. So one half was fused to SHH and the other was anchored to the extracellular leaflet of the plasma membrane, and when both were expressed, they got green fluorescence.

In total – a very nice and pretty paper.
ResearchBlogging.orgSanders TA, Llagostera E, & Barna M (2013). Specialized filopodia direct long-range transport of SHH during vertebrate tissue patterning. Nature, 497 (7451), 628-32 PMID: 23624372

New and improved – the next generation of GFP?

A new and improved green fluorescent protein, named mNeonGreen, was developed.

It was engineered from a Yellow fluorescent protein (LanYFP) that was isolated from the cephalochordate Branchiostoma lanceolatum. Therefore, LanYFP is genetically unrelated to the commonly used Aequorea victoria GFP.

LanYFP has a high quantum yield (0.95) and extinction coefficient (~150,000 M−1 cm−1) – making it a very bright protein.  LanYFP is a tetramer – not useful for most applications.

Directed evolution to make it a monomer produced the new, monomeric protein, mNeonGreen. The ex/em of mNeonGreen is slightly shifted to the yellow compared to EGFP (509/516 compared to 488/509), making it a better choice to separate from CFP emission.

Though slightly less brighter than its parent protein LanYFP, mNeonGFP is 2-3 times brighter than EGFP and actually brighter than most green & yellow proteins.

Another great advantage of this new protein is that is it fast folding – the authors claim it is <10 min at 37C. This is fairly close to the superfolder GFP.

It is also very photostable (comparable to EGFP), performs well as a fusion construct at N & C termini many tested proteins, performs 4-times better that EGFP in stochastic single-molecule superresolution imaging and is a better FRET partner (both as acceptor and donor) than other proteins.

mNeonGreen fused to histone H2B shows the different stages of the chromosomes during cell division. Source: Shaner et al., (2013) Nature Methods 10:407-409.

mNeonGreen fused to histone H2B shows the different stages of the chromosomes during cell division. Source: Shaner et al., (2013) Nature Methods 10:407-409.

In short, this may very well be the “next generation” of fluorescent proteins. It has all the good qualities, and seems to have none of the bad ones. It performs better than most, if not all fluorescent proteins in every tested parameter.

Only its name is rather plain. I would call it something like wonderGFP or GreenLantern (hey, it even has the Lan from the animal they developed it from).

(Update: see here for details on how to get your hands on this protein).

ResearchBlogging.orgShaner NC, Lambert GG, Chammas A, Ni Y, Cranfill PJ, Baird MA, Sell BR, Allen JR, Day RN, Israelsson M, Davidson MW, & Wang J (2013). A bright monomeric green fluorescent protein derived from Branchiostoma lanceolatum. Nature methods, 10, 407-409 PMID: 23524392