Development of cysteine-free fluorescent proteins for the oxidative environment

PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37551. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037551. Epub 2012 May 23.


Molecular imaging employing fluorescent proteins has been widely used to highlight specific reactions or processes in various fields of the life sciences. Despite extensive improvements of the fluorescent tag, this technology is still limited in the study of molecular events in the extracellular milieu. This is partly due to the presence of cysteine in the fluorescent proteins. These proteins almost cotranslationally form disulfide bonded oligomers when expressed in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Although single molecule photobleaching analysis showed that these oligomers were not fluorescent, the fluorescent monomer form often showed aberrant behavior in folding and motion, particularly when fused to cysteine-containing cargo. Therefore we investigated whether it was possible to eliminate the cysteine without losing the brightness. By site-saturated mutagenesis, we found that the cysteine residues in fluorescent proteins could be replaced with specific alternatives while still retaining their brightness. cf(cysteine-free)SGFP2 showed significantly reduced restriction of free diffusion in the ER and marked improvement of maturation when fused to the prion protein. We further applied this approach to TagRFP family proteins and found a set of mutations that obtains the same level of brightness as the cysteine-containing proteins. The approach used in this study to generate new cysteine-free fluorescent tags should expand the application of molecular imaging to the extracellular milieu and facilitate its usage in medicine and biotechnology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cysteine / genetics
  • Escherichia coli
  • Fluorescent Dyes / metabolism*
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / biosynthesis*
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / genetics*
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Models, Biological
  • Mutagenesis, Site-Directed / methods
  • NIH 3T3 Cells
  • Photobleaching
  • Plasmids / genetics
  • Prions / genetics
  • Prions / metabolism
  • Protein Engineering / methods*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Prions
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Cysteine