Interactive Tutorials - Spinning Disk Fundamentals

Interactive Tutorials

Fluorescent Protein Technology

HcRed Fluorescent Protein Chromophore Formation


The far-red fluorescent protein, HcRed, was discovered through site-directed and random mutagenesis efforts on a non-fluorescent chromoprotein (hcCP) isolated from the Indo-Pacific Anthozoa species, Heteractis crispa, during a search for naturally occurring GFP analogues emitting fluorescence in longer wavelength regions. Although HcRed shares only approximately 21 percent amino acid sequence homology with the Aequorea victoria green fluorescent protein, enough critical amino acid motifs are conserved to form a very stable three-dimensional beta-barrel structure. The fluorescence emission spectrum of HcRed is shifted to longer wavelengths by almost 140 nanometers (645-nanometer peak; emitting in the far red) compared to the enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP). This article explores the series of molecular rearrangements that occur during the formation of the HcRed fluorescent protein chromophore.

A notable feature of the HcRed chromophore is the mixed cis coplanar and trans non-coplanar ensemble of molecular conformations that are assumed by the para-hydroxybenzylidene substituent due to increased mobility (compared to GFP, DsRed, and eqFP611) of the chromophore within the cavity of the beta-barrel structure. This surprising degree of flexibility can be attributed to a lack of steric hindrance preventing rotational motion, as well as favorable molecular interactions with surrounding amino acids and water molecules for each isomer. The cis coplanar structure is most likely responsible for the red fluorescent properties of HcRed, while the alternative trans non-coplanar conformation results in reduced π-bonding and more closely resembles the non-fluorescent structure of the parent chromoprotein, hcCP. In the tutorial, after the Chromophore Maturation Control slider has been translated to the far-right (mature) position, use the HcRed and hcCP buttons to toggle between the conformations of the Tyr65 phenoxy substituent.

As discussed above, HcRed was genetically engineered through site-directed and random mutagenesis of the parent chromoprotein originally isolated from the Heteractis crispa reef coral. A total of 6 amino acid substitutions were necessary to create a red fluorescent species that matured rapidly and efficiently at 37° C. However, similar to other reef coral proteins, the resulting red fluorescent HcRed displayed a tendency to form obligate tetramers when expressed in bacteria. Additional mutagenesis efforts resulted in a brighter dimeric variant, which has been denoted HcRed-2 and is commercially available (under the trade name HcRed1), but a monomeric version of the protein has not yet been discovered. In order to generate a species of the protein that is useful in creating fusion products for localization studies, a tandem dimer expression vector of HcRed (two head-to-tail identical copies of the protein) has been constructed. When fused to a gene product that itself forms biopolymers (such as actin or tubulin), the HcRed tandem dimer forms an intramolecular dimer complex that apparently does not interfere with the biological activity of the resulting chimera. In the future, continued mutagenesis investigations and unique strategies, such as the tandem dimer concept, should collectively yield a useful cadre of fluorescent proteins that enable imaging in the far-red and near-infrared portions of the visible light spectrum.

Contributing Authors

Tony B. Gines, Kevin A. John, Tadja Dragoo and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.