Digital imaging fluorescence microscopy: Spatial heterogeneity of photobleaching rate constants in individual cells

Douglas M. Benson, Joseph Bryan, Anne L. Plant, Antonio M. Gotto, Louis C. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

136 Scopus citations


Photobleaching and related photochemical processes are recognized experimental barriers to quantification of fluorescence by microscopy. We have measured the kinetics of photobleaching of fluorophores in living and fixed cells and in microemulsions, and have demonstrated the spatial variability of these processes within individual cells. An inverted fluorescence microscope and a high-sensitivity camera, together with high-speed data acquisition by a computer-controlled image processor, have been used to control precisely exposure time to excitation light and to record images. To improve the signal-to-noise ratio, 32 digital images were integrated. After correction for spatial variations in camera sensitivity and background fluorescence, the images of the relative fluorescence intensities for 0.065 μm2 areas in the object plane were obtained. To evaluate photobleaching objectively, an algorithm was developed to fit a three-parameter exponential equation to 20 images recorded from the same microscope field as a function of illumination time. The results of this analysis demonstrated that the photobleaching process followed first-order reaction kinetics with rate constants that were spatially heterogeneous and varied, within the same cell, between 2- and 65-fold, depending on the fluorophore. The photobleaching rate constants increased proportionally with increasing excitation intensity and, for benzo(a)pyrene, were independent of probe concentration over three orders of magnitude (1.25 μM to 1.25 mM). The propensity to photobleach was different with each fluorophore. Under the cellular conditions used in these studies, the average rates of photobleaching decreased in this order: N-(7-nitrobenz-2-oxa-1,3-diazole)-23,24-dinor-5-cholen-22-amine-3β-ol>acr idine orange>rhodamine-123>benzo(a)pyrene>fluorescein>tetramethylrhodamine>1,1'd ioctadecyl-3,3,3',3'-tetramethylindocarbocyanine. The photobleaching appears to be an oxidation reaction, in that the addition of saturated solutions of Na2S2O5 to mineral oil microemulsions eliminated photobleaching of N-(7-nitrobenz-2-oxa-1,3-diazole)-23,24-dinor-5-cholen-22-amine-3β-ol or benzo(a)pyrene. We identified experimental conditions to observe, without detectable photobleaching, fluorophores in living cells, which can not be studied anaerobically. Useful images were obtained when excitation light was reduced to eliminate photobleaching, as determined from zero-time images calculated from the exponential fit routine. The results show that, with conventional illumination and photographic methods, the fluorescence of regions with high rate constants for photobleaching are significantly underrepresented, and can be as much as 20-fold.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1309-1323
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Cell Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 1985

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cell Biology


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