Structural origin and rational development of bright red noncanonical variants of green fluorescent protein†
The incorporation of noncanonical amino acids (ncAAs) into fluorescent proteins is promising for red-shifting their fluorescence and benefiting tissue imaging with deep penetration and low phototoxicity. However, ncAA-based red fluorescent proteins (RFPs) have been rare. The 3-aminotyrosine modified superfolder green fluorescent protein (aY-sfGFP) represents a recent advance, yet the molecular mechanism for its red-shifted fluorescence remains elusive while its dim fluorescence hinders applications. Herein, we implement femtosecond stimulated Raman spectroscopy to obtain structural fingerprints in the electronic ground state and reveal that aY-sfGFP possesses a GFP-like instead of RFP-like chromophore. Red color of aY-sfGFP intrinsically arises from a unique “double-donor” chromophore structure that raises ground-state energy and enhances charge transfer, notably differing from the conventional conjugation mechanism. We further developed two aY-sfGFP mutants (E222H and T203H) with significantly improved (∼12-fold higher) brightness by rationally restraining the chromophore's nonradiative decay through electronic and steric effects, aided by solvatochromic and fluorogenic studies of the model chromophore in solution. This study thus provides functional mechanisms and generalizable insights into ncAA-RFPs with an efficient route for engineering redder and brighter fluorescent proteins.
- This article is part of the themed collection: 2023 PCCP HOT Articles