Cell signalling: probes and methods

Cell signaling involves the sensing of an extracellular signal by a cell surface receptor, which then transduces this signal to an intracellular response. Despite the numerous studies performed on signaling pathways and mechanisms, little is known about the initial steps occurring at the plasma membrane: receptor pre-assembly at the molecular level and potential reorganization after ligand activation. Traditionally crystallography is used to investigate receptor multimerization. However, the crystallized state might not represent the biochemically active form due to the harsh preparation conditions and the absence of the cellular environment. Other approaches include macroscopic biochemical or biophysical methods, such as chemical cross-linking, ion-channel gating, immunoprecipitation or binding assays. Nowadays, established fluorescence imaging and spectroscopic techniques offer a versatile toolbox to study membrane receptor organization in (living) cells.

In the lab we are using fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy to quantify physicochemical processes (mobility, binding affinity, stoichiometry, absolute concentration) occurring on a micro-to-millisecond time scale. Fluorescence experiments down to picoseconds are also commonly possible with methods such as time-correlated single photon counting (TCSPC), that allow, e.g., measuring fluorescence lifetimes and molecular tumbling. Additionally, spatially resolved microscopy with high temporal resolution also has clear benefits. For example, combined with confocal laser scanning microscopy (LSM), TCSPC allows protein-protein interactions (PPIs) to be imaged via Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) based fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM). Imaging based FCS methods such as raster (RICS), number and brightness analysis (N&B) or (spatio-) temporal image correlation spectroscopy [(S)TICS] combine the quantitative analytical power of fluctuation methods with spatial information to map, among many other things, mobility and stoichiometry inside living systems. Simultaneous dual-color fluorescence imaging is possible when fast alternating excitation (alias pulsed interleaved excitation, PIE) is employed. PIE renders analysis of dual-color point FCS experiments considerably more straightforward. The combination of PIE with fluctuation imaging (PIE-FI) allows extracting the maximum amount of molecular information (mobility, stoichiometry, interactions…) from each species present in dual-color LSM images.

PIE (a), PIE-FI (b) and subsequent analyses, based on spatial/temporal auto-/cross-correlation or fluorescence lifetimes, which allow to extract the maximum amount of information of the molecules present in the imaged structure.

For more information on these methods:

  • Hendrix J., Lamb D.C. (2014) Implementation and Application of Pulsed Interleaved Excitation for Dual-Color FCS and RICS. In: Engelborghs Y., Visser A. (eds) Fluorescence Spectroscopy and Microscopy. Methods in Molecular Biology (Methods and Protocols), vol 1076. Humana Press, Totowa, NJ (chapter can be found here)
  • Hendrix J., Schrimpf W., Höller M., Lamb D.C. (2013) Pulsed Interleaved Excitation Fluctuation Imaging, Biophysical Journal, 105(4), 848-861 (article can be found here)