Compact Quantum Dots for Single-molecule Imaging
Single-molecule imaging is an important tool for understanding the mechanisms of biomolecular function and for visualizing the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of molecular behaviors that underlie cellular biology (1-4). To image an individual molecule of interest, it is typically conjugated to a fluorescent tag (dye, protein, bead, or quantum dot) and observed with epifluorescence or total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy. While dyes and fluorescent proteins have been the mainstay of fluorescence imaging for decades, their fluorescence is unstable under high photon fluxes necessary to observe individual molecules, yielding only a few seconds of observation before complete loss of signal. Latex beads and dye-labeled beads provide improved signal stability but at the expense of drastically larger hydrodynamic size, which can deleteriously alter the diffusion and behavior of the molecule under study. Quantum dots (QDs) offer a balance between these two problematic regimes. These nanoparticles are composed of semiconductor materials and can be engineered with a hydrodynamically compact size with exceptional resistance to photodegradation (5). Thus in recent years QDs have been instrumental in enabling long-term observation of complex macromolecular behavior on the single molecule level. However these particles have still been found to exhibit impaired diffusion in crowded molecular environments such as the cellular cytoplasm and the neuronal synaptic cleft, where their sizes are still too large (4,6,7). Recently we have engineered the cores and surface coatings of QDs for minimized hydrodynamic size, while balancing offsets to colloidal stability, photostability, brightness, and nonspecific binding that have hindered the utility of compact QDs in the past (8,9). The goal of this article is to demonstrate the synthesis, modification, and characterization of these optimized nanocrystals, composed of an alloyed HgxCd1-xSe core coated with an insulating CdyZn1-yS shell, further coated with a multidentate polymer ligand modified with short polyethylene glycol (PEG) chains (Figure 1). Compared with conventional CdSe nanocrystals, HgxCd1-xSe alloys offer greater quantum yields of fluorescence, fluorescence at red and near-infrared wavelengths for enhanced signal-to-noise in cells, and excitation at non-cytotoxic visible wavelengths. Multidentate polymer coatings bind to the nanocrystal surface in a closed and flat conformation to minimize hydrodynamic size, and PEG neutralizes the surface charge to minimize nonspecific binding to cells and biomolecules. The end result is a brightly fluorescent nanocrystal with emission between 550-800 nm and a total hydrodynamic size near 12 nm. This is in the same size range as many soluble globular proteins in cells, and substantially smaller than conventional PEGylated QDs (25-35 nm).
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