Excitation Ratiometric Chloride Sensing in a Standalone Yellow Fluorescent Protein is Powered by the Interplay between Proton Transfer and Conformational Reorganization
Natural and laboratory-guided evolution has created a rich diversity of fluorescent protein (FP)-based sensors for chloride (Cl−). To date, such sensors have been limited to the Aequorea victoria green fluorescent protein (avGFP) family, and fusions with other FPs have unlocked ratiometric imaging applications. Recently, we identified the yellow fluorescent protein from jellyfish Phialidium sp. (phiYFP) as a fluorescent turn-on, self-ratiometric Cl− sensor. To elucidate its working mechanism as a rare example of a single FP with this capability, we tracked the excited-state dynamics of phiYFP using femtosecond transient absorption (fs-TA) spectroscopy and target analysis. The photoexcited neutral chromophore undergoes bifurcated pathways with the twisting-motion-induced nonradiative decay and barrierless excited-state proton transfer. The latter pathway yields a weakly fluorescent anionic intermediate (I1*), followed by the formation of a red-shifted fluorescent state (I2*) that enables the ratiometric response on the tens of picoseconds timescale. The redshift results from the optimized π-π stacking between chromophore Y66 and nearby Y203, an ultrafast molecular event. The anion binding leads to an increase of the chromophore pKa and ESPT population, and the hindrance of I1*→I2* conversion. The interplay between these two effects determines the turn-on fluorescence response to halides like Cl− but turn-off response to other anions such as nitrate as governed by different binding affinities. These deep mechanistic insights lay the foundation in guiding the targeted engineering of phiYFP and derivatives for ratiometric imaging of cellular chloride with high selectivity.