A methodology is described for the quantitative determination of Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) in live cells using the rise time of acceptor fluorescence as determined with fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM). An advantage of this method is that only those molecules that are involved in the energy-transfer process are monitored. This contrasts with current methods that measure either steady-state fluorescence of donor and acceptor molecules or time-resolved fluorescence of donor molecules, and thereby probe a mixture of donor molecules that are involved in FRET and those that are fluorescent but not involved in FRET. The absence of FRET can, for instance, be due to unwanted acceptor bleaching or incomplete maturing of visible proteins that should act as acceptor molecules. In addition, parameters describing the rise of acceptor fluorescence and the decay of donor fluorescence can be determined via simultaneous global analysis of multiple FLIM images, thereby increasing the reliability of the analysis. In the present study, plant protoplasts transfected with fusions of visible fluorescent proteins are used to illustrate the new data analysis method. It is demonstrated that the distances estimated with the present method are substantially smaller than those estimated from the average donor lifetimes, due to a fraction of non-transferring donor molecules. Software to reproduce the presented results is provided in an open-source and freely available package called “TIMP” for “The R project for Statistical Computing”.
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