Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) continues to be a useful tool to study movement and interaction between proteins within living cells. When FRET as an optical technique is measured with flow cytometry, conformational changes of proteins can be rapidly measured cell-by-cell for the benefit of screening and profiling. We exploit FRET to study the extent of activation of α4β1 integrin dimers expressed on the surface of leukocytes. The stalk-like transmembrane heterodimers when not active lay bent and upon activation extend outward. Integrin extension is determined by changes in the distance of closest approach between an FRET donor and acceptor, bound at the integrin head and cell membrane, respectively. Time-resolved flow cytometry analysis revealed donor emission increases up to 17%, fluorescence lifetime shifts over 1.0 ns during activation, and FRET efficiencies of 37% and 26% corresponding to the inactive and active integrin state, respectively. Last, a graphical phasor analysis, including population clustering, gating, and formation of an FRET trajectory, added precision to a comparative analysis of populations undergoing FRET, partial donor recovery, and complete donor recovery. This work establishes a quantitative cytometric approach for profiling fluorescence donor decay kinetics during integrin conformational changes on a single-cell level.
Flow cytometry for single cell counting uses optical measurements to report multiple cell features such as cell morphology, cell phenotype, and microenvironmental changes. Time-resolved flow cytometry is a unique method that involves the detection of the average fluorescence lifetime as a cytometric parameter. Measuring the average fluorescence lifetime is helpful when discriminating between more than one emission signal from a single cell because of spectrally overlapping emission. In this contribution, we present preliminary measurements toward a study that advances simple time-resolved flow cytometry and introduces a technique to measure fluorescence lifetime values from single cells labeled with a Forster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) pair. Specifically, donor fluorophore fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC) fluorescence lifetime is measured to identify its proximity to the acceptor fluorophore. We hypothesize that our time-resolved flow cytometry approach can resolve changes in FRET in order to study integrin structures on the surface of leukocyte cells. Our results show that FITC has an average lifetime of 4.2 +/-0.1 nsec, and an average fluorescence lifetime of 2.4 nsec +/-0.2 nsec when engaged in FRET. After the release of FRET (e.g. dequenched) the average fluorescence lifetime of FITC was measured to be 3.1 +/- 0.5 nsec. Phasor graphs reveal large distributions of fluorescence lifetimes on a per cell basis, suggesting the existence of multiple fluorescence lifetimes. These data suggest more than one integrin conformation occurs throughout the cell population. The impact of this work is the addition of quantitative information for FRET efficiency values and determination of FRET calculations using high-throughput data.