Enhancing the biocompatibility of rhodamine fluorescent probes by a neighbouring group effect†
Fluorescence microscopy is an essential tool for understanding dynamic processes in living cells and organisms. However, many fluorescent probes for labelling cellular structures suffer from unspecific interactions and low cell permeability. Herein, we demonstrate that the neighbouring group effect which results from positioning an amide group next to a carboxyl group in the benzene ring of rhodamines dramatically increases cell permeability of the rhodamine-based probes through stabilizing a fluorophore in a hydrophobic spirolactone state. Based on this principle, we create probes targeting tubulin, actin and DNA. Their superb staining intensity, tuned toxicity and specificity allows long-term 3D confocal and STED nanoscopy with sub-30 nm resolution. Due to their unrestricted cell permeability and efficient accumulation on the target, the new probes produce high contrast images at low nanomolar concentrations. Superior performance is exemplified by resolving the real microtubule diameter of 23 nm and selective staining of the centrosome inside living cells for the first time.