Revealing G-protein-coupled receptor oligomerization at the single-molecule level through a nanoscopic lens: methods, dynamics and biological function

FEBS J. 2016 Apr;283(7):1197-217. doi: 10.1111/febs.13577. Epub 2015 Nov 28.


The introduction of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy has allowed the visualization of single proteins in their biological environment. Recently, these techniques have been applied to determine the organization of class A G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), and to determine whether they exist as monomers, dimers and/or higher-order oligomers. On this subject, this review highlights recent evidence from photoactivated localization microscopy (PALM), which allows the visualization of single molecules in dense samples, and single-molecule tracking (SMT), which determines how GPCRs move and interact in living cells in the presence of different ligands. PALM has demonstrated that GPCR oligomerization depends on the receptor subtype, the cell type, the actin cytoskeleton, and other proteins. Conversely, SMT has revealed the transient dynamics of dimer formation, whereby receptors show a monomer-dimer equilibrium characterized by rapid association and dissociation. At steady state, depending on the subtype, approximately 30-50% of receptors are part of dimeric complexes. Notably, the existence of many GPCR dimers/oligomers is also supported by well-known techniques, such as resonance energy transfer methodologies, and by approaches that exploit fluorescence fluctuations, such as fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS). Future research using single-molecule methods will deepen our knowledge related to the function and druggability of homo-oligomers and hetero-oligomers.

Keywords: G-protein-coupled receptor; actin cytoskeleton; oligomerization; photoactivated localization microscopy; single-molecule microscopy; β2-adrenergic receptor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Actin Cytoskeleton / chemistry
  • Actin Cytoskeleton / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / instrumentation
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / methods*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Nanotechnology / instrumentation
  • Nanotechnology / methods*
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Multimerization*
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / chemistry*
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / metabolism
  • Reproducibility of Results


  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled