Fluorescence lifetime imaging--techniques and applications

J Microsc. 2012 Aug;247(2):119-36. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2818.2012.03618.x. Epub 2012 May 24.


Fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM) uses the fact that the fluorescence lifetime of a fluorophore depends on its molecular environment but not on its concentration. Molecular effects in a sample can therefore be investigated independently of the variable, and usually unknown concentration of the fluorophore. There is a variety of technical solutions of lifetime imaging in microscopy. The technical part of this paper focuses on time-domain FLIM by multidimensional time-correlated single photon counting, time-domain FLIM by gated image intensifiers, frequency-domain FLIM by gain-modulated image intensifiers, and frequency-domain FLIM by gain-modulated photomultipliers. The application part describes the most frequent FLIM applications: Measurement of molecular environment parameters, protein-interaction measurements by Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET), and measurements of the metabolic state of cells and tissue via their autofluorescence. Measurements of local environment parameters are based on lifetime changes induced by fluorescence quenching or conformation changes of the fluorophores. The advantage over intensity-based measurements is that no special ratiometric fluorophores are needed. Therefore, a much wider selection of fluorescence markers can be used, and a wider range of cell parameters is accessible. FLIM-FRET measures the change in the decay function of the FRET donor on interaction with an acceptor. FLIM-based FRET measurement does not have to cope with problems like donor bleedthrough or directly excited acceptor fluorescence. This relaxes the requirements to the absorption and emission spectra of the donors and acceptors used. Moreover, FLIM-FRET measurements are able to distinguish interacting and noninteracting fractions of the donor, and thus obtain independent information about distances and interacting and noninteracting protein fractions. This is information not accessible by steady-state FRET techniques. Autofluorescence FLIM exploits changes in the decay parameters of endogenous fluorophores with the metabolic state of the cells or the tissue. By resolving changes in the binding, conformation, and composition of biologically relevant compounds FLIM delivers information not accessible by steady-state fluorescence techniques.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / methods*