Fluorescence imaging has become the fastest growing technique for monitoring neuronal activity in defined networks of neurons. We have recently developed a molecular wire-based fluorescent sensor for optically measuring voltage changes in mammalian neurons. This novel method makes use of a fluorophore connected to a quencher via a long molecular wire that spans a large fraction of the transmembrane voltage. At resting potentials, electron transfer from the quencher through the wire to the excited state of the fluorophore quenches the latter. Depolarization inhibits electron transfer and brightens fluorescence, just as Ca2+ binding dequenches indicators like fluo-3. These new molecular wire voltage sensitive dyes (VSDs) provide large and fast increases in fluorescence upon depolarization and can optically detect and resolve evoked and spontaneous action potentials in single trials in primary culture neurons. During the mentored phase, the proposed research seeks to expand upon these initial findings by characterizing molecular wire VSDs in a more complex context: mammalian brain slices. Previously synthesized genetically targeted versions of the molecular wire VSDs will enable the interrogation of defined sub-populations of neurons. As a test-case, specific neuronal populations in the lateral habenula, a region associated with depressive behavior, will be genetically targeted and examined with molecular wire VSDs . Another method for improving sensitivity via selective neuronal labeling is through the use of genetically encoded sensors. In the mentored phase, the intramolecular photoinduced electron transfer (PeT) rates of fluorescent protein fusions will be examined and the voltage sensitivity of this process quantified to determine the optimal configuration for voltage sensitivity in vitro. During the independent phase, this knowledge will be exploited to generate genetically encoded voltage sensitive fluorescent proteins based on a PeT mechanism. As with the small molecule counterparts, a PeT- based approach to voltage sensing should provide large, fast fluorescent changes with negligible capacitative load. Membrane localization will be investigated via a number of strategies and the sensitivity of the probes in live cells measured. Finally, in the independent phase, a rational design and synthesis of improved molecular wire VSDs will be carried out. Systematic variation of the donor, acceptor, and molecular wire and analysis of the resulting quantum yields, voltage sensitivities and solubilities of the probes will reveal design principles enabling future generations of VSDs to provide greater sensitivity and precision in the detection of minute voltage changes in heterogeneous brain samples. Together, the components of the research strategy provide a multidisciplinary platform, spanning slice physiology, fluorescent protein design and engineering, and chemical synthesis, from which to begin to interrogate the circuitry of defined neurons within brain slices. The ability to make sensitive and precise measurements within sub-populations of neurons within heterogeneous systems will dramatically increase our understanding of the inner workings of the brain.
Imaging voltage changes in neurons offers an attractive method for the direct interrogation of neuronal communication. This research will apply newly synthesized molecular wire voltage sensors to studying electrical activity in brain slices, establish a new paradigm for constructing genetically encoded voltage sensitive fluorescent proteins, and improve the sensitivity and uptake of existing molecular wire voltage sensors. Successful application of these sensors will improve our understanding of the way nerve cells communicate with one another.