Single molecule fluorescence measurements have recently been used to probe the orientation of fluorescent lipid analogs doped into lipid films at trace levels. Using defocused polarized total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy (PTIRF-M), these studies have shown that fluorophore orientation responds to changes in membrane surface pressure and composition, providing a molecular level marker of membrane structure. Here we extend those studies by characterizing the single molecule orientations of six related BODIPY probes doped into monolayers of DPPC. Langmuir–Blodgett monolayers transferred at various surface pressures are used to compare the response from fluorescent lipid analogs in which the location of the BODIPY probe is varied along the length of the acyl chain. For each BODIPY probe location along the chain, comparisons are made between analogs containing phosphocholine and smaller fatty acid headgroups. Together these studies show a general propensity of the BODIPY analogs to insert into membranes with the BODIPY probe aligned along the acyl chains or looped back to interact with the headgroups. For all BODIPY probes studied, a bimodal orientation distribution is observed which is sensitive to surface pressure, with the population of BODIPY probes aligned along the acyl chains increasing with elevated surface pressure. Trends in the single molecule orientations for the six analogs reveal a configuration where optimal placement of the BODIPY probe within the acyl chain maximizes its sensitivity to the surrounding membrane structure. These results are discussed in terms of balancing the effects of headgroup association with acyl chain length in designing the optimal placement of the BODIPY probe.
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