Switchable nile red-based probe for cholesterol and lipid order at the outer leaflet of biomembranes

J Am Chem Soc. 2010 Apr 7;132(13):4907-16. doi: 10.1021/ja100351w.


Cholesterol and sphingomyelin form together a highly ordered membrane phase, which is believed to play important biological functions in plasma membranes of mammalian cells. Since sphingomyelin is present mainly at the outer leaflet of cell membranes, monitoring its lipid order requires molecular probes capable to bind specifically at this leaflet and exhibit negligibly slow flip-flop. In the present work, such a probe was developed by modifying the solvatochromic fluorescent dye Nile Red with an amphiphilic anchor group. To evaluate the flip-flop of the obtained probe (NR12S), we developed a methodology of reversible redox switching of its fluorescence at one leaflet using sodium dithionite. This method shows that NR12S, in contrast to parent Nile Red, binds exclusively the outer membrane leaflet of model lipid vesicles and living cells with negligible flip-flop in the time scale of hours. Moreover, the emission maximum of NR12S in model vesicles exhibits a significant blue shift in liquid ordered phase (sphingomyelin-cholesterol) as compared to liquid disordered phase (unsaturated phospholipids). As a consequence, these two phases could be clearly distinguished in NR12S-stained giant vesicles by fluorescence microscopy imaging of intensity ratio between the blue and red parts of the probe emission spectrum. Being added to living cells, NR12S binds predominantly, if not exclusively, their plasma membranes and shows an emission spectrum intermediate between those in liquid ordered and disordered phases of model membranes. Importantly, the emission color of NR12S correlates well with the cholesterol content in cell membranes, which allows monitoring the cholesterol depletion process with methyl-beta-cyclodextrin by fluorescence spectroscopy and microscopy. The attractive photophysical and switching properties of NR12S, together with its selective outer leaflet staining and sensitivity to cholesterol and lipid order, make it a new powerful tool for studying model and cell membranes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cholesterol / analysis*
  • Fluorescent Dyes / chemical synthesis
  • Fluorescent Dyes / chemistry*
  • Fluorescent Dyes / pharmacokinetics
  • Humans
  • Molecular Structure
  • Oxazines / chemical synthesis
  • Oxazines / chemistry*
  • Oxazines / pharmacokinetics
  • Sphingomyelins / analysis*
  • Tissue Distribution
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Oxazines
  • Sphingomyelins
  • Cholesterol
  • nile red