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Published March 29, 2021 | Version v1
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Fluorescence lifetime imaging of pH along the secretory pathway

  • 1. Department of Tumor Immunology, Radboud University Medical Center, 6525 GA Nijmegen, The Netherlands
  • 2. Department of Molecular Immunology, Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute, University of Groningen, 9747AG, Groningen, Netherlands


Many cellular processes are dependent on correct pH levels, and this is especially important for the secretory pathway. Defects in pH homeostasis in distinct organelles cause a wide range of diseases, including disorders of glycosylation and lysosomal storage diseases. Ratiometric imaging of the pH-sensitive mutant of green fluorescent protein (GFP), pHLuorin, has allowed for targeted pH measurements in various organelles, but the required sequential image acquisition is intrinsically slow and therefore the temporal resolution unsuitable to follow the rapid transit of cargo between organelles. We therefore applied fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) to measure intraorganellar pH with just a single excitation wavelength. We first validated this method by confirming the pH in multiple compartments along the secretory pathway. Then, we analyze the dynamic pH changes within cells treated with Brefeldin A, a COPI coat inhibitor. Finally, we followed the pH changes of newly-synthesized molecules of the inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α while it was in transit from the endoplasmic reticulum via the Golgi to the plasma membrane. The toolbox we present here can be applied to measure intracellular pH with high spatial and temporal resolution, and can be used to assess organellar pH in disease models.


G.v.d.B. is funded by a Young Investigator Grant from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP; RGY0080/2018) and a Vidi grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-ALW VIDI 864.14.001). G.v.d.B has also received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No. 862137).


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