A comparative study on fluorescent cholesterol analogs as versatile cellular reporters

J Lipid Res. 2016 Feb;57(2):299-309. doi: 10.1194/jlr.M065326. Epub 2015 Dec 23.


Cholesterol (Chol) is a crucial component of cellular membranes, but knowledge of its intracellular dynamics is scarce. Thus, it is of utmost interest to develop tools for visualization of Chol organization and dynamics in cells and tissues. For this purpose, many studies make use of fluorescently labeled Chol analogs. Unfortunately, the introduction of the label may influence the characteristics of the analog, such as its localization, interaction, and trafficking in cells; hence, it is important to get knowledge of such bias. In this report, we compared different fluorescent lipid analogs for their performance in cellular assays: 1) plasma membrane incorporation, specifically the preference for more ordered membrane environments in phase-separated giant unilamellar vesicles and giant plasma membrane vesicles; 2) cellular trafficking, specifically subcellular localization in Niemann-Pick type C disease cells; and 3) applicability in fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS)-based and super-resolution stimulated emission depletion-FCS-based measurements of membrane diffusion dynamics. The analogs exhibited strong differences, with some indicating positive performance in the membrane-based experiments and others in the intracellular trafficking assay. However, none showed positive performance in all assays. Our results constitute a concise guide for the careful use of fluorescent Chol analogs in visualizing cellular Chol dynamics.

Keywords: Niemann-Pick type C disease; cholesterol/metabolism; cholesterol/trafficking; fluorescence correlation spectroscopy; fluorescence microscopy; giant plasma membrane vesicles; giant unilamellar vesicles; lipid rafts; membranes/model; stimulated emission depletion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cholesterol / analogs & derivatives
  • Cholesterol / chemistry*
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Fluorescence
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Humans
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Spectrometry, Fluorescence
  • Unilamellar Liposomes / chemistry*
  • Unilamellar Liposomes / metabolism


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Unilamellar Liposomes
  • Cholesterol