Formate is a major reactive carbon species in one-carbon metabolism, where it serves as an endogenous precursor for amino acid and nucleic acid biosynthesis and a cellular source of NAD(P)H. On the other hand, aberrant elevations in cellular formate are connected to progression of serious diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Traditional methods for formate detection in biological environments often rely on sample destruction and/or extensive processing, resulting in a loss of spatiotemporal information. To help address these limitations, here we present the design, synthesis, and biological evaluation of a first-generation activity-based sensing system for live-cell formate imaging that relies on iridium transfer hydrogenation catalysis. Formate facilitates an aldehyde-to alcohol conversion on various fluorophore scaffolds to enable fluorescence detection of this one-carbon unit, including through a two-color ratiometric response with internal calibration. The resulting two-component probe system can detect changes in formate levels in living cells with high selectivity over potentially competing biological analytes. Moreover, this activity-based sensing system can visualize changes in endogenous formate fluxes through alterations of one-carbon pathways in cell-based models of human colon cancer, presaging the potential utility of this chemical approach to probe the continuum between one-carbon metabolism and signaling in cancer and other diseases.
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