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      Exploring cells with targeted biosensors

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          Cellular signaling networks are composed of multiple pathways, often interconnected, that form complex networks with great potential for cross-talk. Signal decoding depends on the nature of the message as well as its amplitude, temporal pattern, and spatial distribution. In addition, the existence of membrane-bound organelles, which are both targets and generators of messages, add further complexity to the system. The availability of sensors that can localize to specific compartments in live cells and monitor their targets with high spatial and temporal resolution is thus crucial for a better understanding of cell pathophysiology. For this reason, over the last four decades, a variety of strategies have been developed, not only to generate novel and more sensitive probes for ions, metabolites, and enzymatic activity, but also to selectively deliver these sensors to specific intracellular compartments. In this review, we summarize the principles that have been used to target organic or protein sensors to different cellular compartments and their application to cellular signaling.

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          Visualizing secretion and synaptic transmission with pH-sensitive green fluorescent proteins.

          In neural systems, information is often carried by ensembles of cells rather than by individual units. Optical indicators provide a powerful means to reveal such distributed activity, particularly when protein-based and encodable in DNA: encodable probes can be introduced into cells, tissues, or transgenic organisms by genetic manipulation, selectively expressed in anatomically or functionally defined groups of cells, and, ideally, recorded in situ, without a requirement for exogenous cofactors. Here we describe sensors for secretion and neurotransmission that fulfil these criteria. We have developed pH-sensitive mutants of green fluorescent protein ('pHluorins') by structure-directed combinatorial mutagenesis, with the aim of exploiting the acidic pH inside secretory vesicles to monitor vesicle exocytosis and recycling. When linked to a vesicle membrane protein, pHluorins were sorted to secretory and synaptic vesicles and reported transmission at individual synaptic boutons, as well as secretion and fusion pore 'flicker' of single secretory granules.
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            Engineering and characterization of a superfolder green fluorescent protein.

            Existing variants of green fluorescent protein (GFP) often misfold when expressed as fusions with other proteins. We have generated a robustly folded version of GFP, called 'superfolder' GFP, that folds well even when fused to poorly folded polypeptides. Compared to 'folding reporter' GFP, a folding-enhanced GFP containing the 'cycle-3' mutations and the 'enhanced GFP' mutations F64L and S65T, superfolder GFP shows improved tolerance of circular permutation, greater resistance to chemical denaturants and improved folding kinetics. The fluorescence of Escherichia coli cells expressing each of eighteen proteins from Pyrobaculum aerophilum as fusions with superfolder GFP was proportional to total protein expression. In contrast, fluorescence of folding reporter GFP fusion proteins was strongly correlated with the productive folding yield of the passenger protein. X-ray crystallographic structural analyses helped explain the enhanced folding of superfolder GFP relative to folding reporter GFP.
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              Fluorescent indicators for Ca2+ based on green fluorescent proteins and calmodulin.

              Important Ca2+ signals in the cytosol and organelles are often extremely localized and hard to measure. To overcome this problem we have constructed new fluorescent indicators for Ca2+ that are genetically encoded without cofactors and are targetable to specific intracellular locations. We have dubbed these fluorescent indicators 'cameleons'. They consist of tandem fusions of a blue- or cyan-emitting mutant of the green fluorescent protein (GFP), calmodulin, the calmodulin-binding peptide M13, and an enhanced green- or yellow-emitting GFP. Binding of Ca2+ makes calmodulin wrap around the M13 domain, increasing the fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) between the flanking GFPs. Calmodulin mutations can tune the Ca2+ affinities to measure free Ca2+ concentrations in the range 10(-8) to 10(-2) M. We have visualized free Ca2+ dynamics in the cytosol, nucleus and endoplasmic reticulum of single HeLa cells transfected with complementary DNAs encoding chimaeras bearing appropriate localization signals. Ca2+ concentration in the endoplasmic reticulum of individual cells ranged from 60 to 400 microM at rest, and 1 to 50 microM after Ca2+ mobilization. FRET is also an indicator of the reversible intermolecular association of cyan-GFP-labelled calmodulin with yellow-GFP-labelled M13. Thus FRET between GFP mutants can monitor localized Ca2+ signals and protein heterodimerization in individual live cells.

                Author and article information

                J Gen Physiol
                J. Gen. Physiol
                The Journal of General Physiology
                The Rockefeller University Press
                January 2017
                : 149
                : 1
                : 1-36
                [1 ]Neuroscience Institute, National Research Council, Padua Section, 35121 Padua, Italy
                [2 ]Venetian Institute of Molecular Medicine, 35129 Padua, Italy
                [3 ]Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Padua, 35121 Padua, Italy
                Author notes
                Correspondence to Tullio Pozzan:

                D. Pendin and E. Greotti contributed equally to this paper.

                © 2017 Pendin et al.

                This article is distributed under the terms of an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike–No Mirror Sites license for the first six months after the publication date (see After six months it is available under a Creative Commons License (Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 4.0 International license, as described at

                Funded by: National Research Council of Italy, DOI;
                Funded by: Ministry of Education, University, and Research, DOI;
                Funded by: Foundation Cariparo, DOI;
                Funded by: University of Padova, DOI;
                Funded by: British Heart Foundation, DOI;
                Award ID: RE/13/1/30181

                Anatomy & Physiology


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