Ratiometric indicators with long emission wavelengths are highly preferred in modern bioimaging and life sciences. Herein, we elucidated the working mechanism of a standalone red fluorescent protein (FP)-based Ca2+ biosensor, REX-GECO1, using a series of spectroscopic and computational methods. Upon 480 nm photoexcitation, the Ca2+-free biosensor chromophore becomes trapped in an excited dark state. Binding with Ca2+ switches the route to ultrafast excited-state proton transfer through a short hydrogen bond to an adjacent Glu80 residue, which is key for the biosensor's functionality. Inspired by the 2D-fluorescence map, REX-GECO1 for Ca2+ imaging in the ionomycin-treated human HeLa cells was achieved for the first time with a red/green emission ratio change (ΔR/R0) of ~300%, outperforming many FRET- and single FP-based indicators. These spectroscopy-driven discoveries enable targeted design for the next-generation biosensors with larger dynamic range and longer emission wavelengths.
Keywords: cell imaging; photochemistry; red fluorescent protein based Ca2+-biosensor; structure-activity relationships; ultrafast dynamics.