Fluorescence lifetime predicts performance of voltage sensitive fluorophores in cardiomyocytes and neurons

Voltage imaging with fluorescent indicators offers a powerful complement to traditional electrode or Ca2+-imaging approaches for monitoring electrical activity. Small molecule fluorescent indicators present the unique opportunity for exquisite control over molecular structure, enabling detailed investigations of structure/function relationships. In this paper, we tune the conjugation between aniline donors and aromatic π systems within the context of photoinduced electron transfer (PeT) based voltage indicators. We describe the design and synthesis of four new voltage-sensitive fluorophores (VoltageFluors, or VFs). Three of these dyes have higher relative voltage sensitivities than the previously-reported indicator, VF2.1.Cl. We pair these new indicators with existing VFs to construct a library of voltage indicators with varying degrees of conjugation between the aniline nitrogen lone pair and the aromatic π system. Using a combination of steady-state and time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy, cellular electrophysiology, fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM), and functional imaging in mammalian neurons and human cardiomyocytes, we establish a detailed link between the photophysical properties of VF dyes and their ability to report on membrane potential dynamics with high signal-to-noise. Anilines with intermediate degrees of conjugation to the aromatic π system experience intermediate rates of PeT and possess the highest absolute voltage sensitivities. Measured using FLIM in patch-clamped HEK cells, we find that the absolute voltage sensitivity of fluorescence lifetime (∆τfl per mV) provides the best predictor of dye performance in cellular systems.