Optical biosensors have been invaluable tools in neuroscience research, as they provide the ability to directly visualize neural activity in real time, with high specificity, and with exceptional spatial and temporal resolution. Notably, a majority of these sensors are based on fluorescent protein scaffolds, which offer the ability to target specific cell types or even subcellular compartments. However, fluorescent proteins are intrinsically bulky tags, often insensitive to the environment, and always require excitation light illumination. To address these limitations, there has been a proliferation of alternative sensor scaffolds developed in recent years, including hybrid sensors that combine the advantages of synthetic fluorophores and genetically encoded protein tags, as well as bioluminescent probes. While still in their early stage of development as compared with fluorescent protein-based sensors, these novel probes have offered complementary solutions to interrogate various aspects of neuronal communication, including transmitter release, changes in membrane potential, and the production of second messengers. In this Review, we discuss these important new developments with a particular focus on design strategies.
Keywords: Biosensors; bioluminescence; fluorescence imaging; protein engineering.