Mega-stokes pyrene ceramide conjugates for STED imaging of lipid droplets in live cells
Lipid droplets are dynamic subcellular organelles that participate in a range of physiological processes including metabolism, regulation and lipid storage. Their role in disease, such as cancer, where they are involved in metabolism and in chemoresistance, has emerged over recent years. Thus, the value of lipid droplets as diagnostic markers is increasingly apparent where number and size of droplets can be a useful prognostic. Although diverse in size, LDs are typically too small to be easily enumerated by conventional microscopy. The advent of super-resolution microscopy methods offers the prospect of detailed insights but there are currently no commercial STED probes suited to this task and STED, where this method has been used to study LDs it has relied on fixed samples. Here, we report a pyrene-based ceramide conjugate PyLa-C17Cer, that stains lipid droplets with exceptionally high precision in living cells and shows excellent performance in stimulated emission depletion microscopy. The parent compound PyLa comprises a pyrene carboxyl core appended with 3,4-dimethylaminophenyl. The resulting luminophore exhibits high fluorescent quantum yield, mega-Stokes shift and low cytotoxicity. From DFT calculations the Stokes shifted fluorescent state arises from a dimethylaminophenyl to pyrene charge-transfer transition. While the parent compound is cell permeable, it is relatively promiscuous, emitting from both protein and membranous structures within the living mammalian cell. However, on conjugation of C17 ceramide to the free carboxylic acid, the resulting PyLa-C17Cer, remains passively permeable to the cell membrane but targets lipid droplets within the cell through a temperature dependent mechanism, with high selectivity. Targeting was confirmed through colocalisation with the commercial lipid probe Nile Red. PyLa-C17Cer offers outstanding contrast of LDs both in fluorescence intensity and lifetime imaging due to its large Stokes shift and very weak emission from aqueous media. Moreover, because the compound is exceptionally photochemically stable with no detectable triplet emission under low temperature conditions, it can be used as an effective probe for fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS). These versatile fluorophores are powerful multimodal probes for combined STED/FCS/lifetime studies of lipid droplets and domains in live cells.