UPDATE : DIADEM Final Results

15 09 2010

The DIADEM automated neuronal reconstruction contest has finished.  Accurate, fast, and high-resolution automated neuron reconstruction is of vital importance to cracking the mystery of how neural circuits perform. Even with perfect knowledge of the firing patterns of every cell in a circuit, our understanding of how these patterns are produced and how the information is processed would be quite limited.  True understanding requires knowledge of the precise wiring diagram.  This prize is a good first step towards bringing awareness of this tricky problem to the world’s best computer scientists.

$75,000 in prize money was to go to the group that was able to produce high-quality reconstructions of neuronal structures at least 20x faster than by-hand reconstructions.  In the finals, the fastest speed achieved was 10X the by-hand method. Some groups were hindered by slight variances in the source data formatting, which normally isn’t a big deal unless you only have 20 minutes to produce as much reconstruction as possible…

Since no group was able to beat the hard floor, but substantial progress was made, the money was distributed amongst these finalists.

Badrinath Roysam Team, $25,000
“for the better overall generality of their program in producing robust reconstructions by integration of human and machines interactions.”

Armen Stepanyants Team, $25,000
“for the better overall biological results in the spirit of pure automation.”

Eugene Myers Team, $15,000
“for the excellent quality and strength of their algorithm.”

German Gonzalez Team, $10,000
“for their deeper potential, more original approach, and ultimate scalability of their proposed solution.”

Deniz Erdogmus Team
“for elevating themselves above the current state of automated reconstructions…with a deep understanding of the technical and scientific problems.”

Congrats to the placing teams.

Three Cheers for GCaMP : Optogenetic Brain Reading

9 11 2009

Three papers are out online in Nature Methods that show big improvements in calcium imaging with genetically encoded sensors.  They are are based on the fluorescence intensity indicator, GCaMP.   GCaMP, first developed by Junichi Nakai, consists of a GFP that has been circularly permuted so that the N and C termini are fused and new termini are made in the middle of the protein.  Fused to one terminus is calmodulin and the other is a peptide, M13, that calmodulin (CaM) binds to in the presence of calcium. The name is supposed to look like GFP with a CaM inserted into it, G-CaM-P.  Normally the GFP is dim, as there is a hole from the outside of its barrel into the chromophore.  Upon binding calcium, this hole is plugged and fluorescence increases.

Crystal structure of GCaMP2

The first paper, A genetically encoded reporter of synaptic activity in vivo, from Leon Lagnado’s group, targets GCaMP2 to the outer surface of synaptic vesicles. This localization allows the fluorescence signal to be confined to the presynaptic terminal, where calcium fluxes in response to action potentials are high.  This targeting improves the response magnitude of GCaMP2 and permits the optical recording of synaptic inputs into whatever region of the brain one looks at.  They demonstrate the technique in live zebrafish.

In the second paper, Optical interrogation of neural circuits in Caenorhabditis elegans, from Sharad Ramanathan’s group, GCaMP2 has been combined with Channelrhodopsin-2 to perform functional circuit mapping in the worm.   Since the worm’s structural wiring diagram has been essentially solved, functional data could say much about how “thick” the wires between each cell are.  Unfortunately, with GCaMP2, the responses are too slow and weak to distinguish direct from indirect connections.

Finally, we have published a paper, Imaging neural activity in worms, flies and mice with improved GCaMP calcium indicators, describing the improved GCaMP3.  This indicator has between 2-10x better signal to noise than GCaMP2, D3cpv and TN-XXL, depending on the system you are using.  It’s kinetics are faster and it is more photostable than FRET indicators, and the responses are huge.  When expressed in motor cortex of the mouse, neuronal activity is easily seen directly in the raw data.  Furthermore, the sensor can be expressed stably for months, making it a potential tool for observing how learning reshapes the patterns of activity in the cortex.

Screen shot 2009-11-09 at 7.19.27 PM

Imaging of mouse motor cortex (M1) expressing the genetically-encoded calcium indicator GCaMP3 through a cortical window. After 72 days of GCaMP3 expression, large fluorescence transients can be seen in many neurons that are highly correlated with mouse running.

GCaMP3 is not perfect. It cannot reliably detect single action potential in vivo in mammals, though I doubt that any existing GECI can. Work continues on future generations of GCaMP that may achieve 100% fidelity in optical reading of the bits in the brain. However, there is considerable evidence from a number of groups that have been beta-testing the sensor, including the Tank lab of “quake mouse” fame, that it is a significant leap forward and unlocks much of the fantastic and fantasized potential of genetically-encoded calcium indicators.

Screen shot 2009-11-09 at 7.20.12 PM

Comparison of fluorescence changes in response to trains of action potentials in acute cortical slices.

I will try to post a more complete writeup of GCaMP3 for Brain Windows soon, with an unbiased eye to its strengths and weaknesses.  We worked very hard to carefully characterize this sensor’s effects on cellular and circuit properties.  If you have any questions about GCaMP3, please post them to the comments.

For further info about strategies for GECI use and optimization, check out our previous paper, Reporting neural activity with genetically encoded calcium indicators in Brain Cell Biology.

The official press release from HHMI regarding GCaMP3 is available here.

Annual Reviews worth reading

22 07 2009

Annual Reviews of Neuroscience published their 2009 issue recently.  These articles are usually a great way to catch up with a field, particularly when they are recently published.  Here are a few that might be of interest to the Brain Windows reader.

Daniel E. Feldman

Sensory experience and learning alter sensory representations in cerebral cortex. The synaptic mechanisms underlying sensory cortical plasticity have long been sought. Recent work indicates that long-term cortical plasticity is a complex, multicomponent process involving multiple synaptic and cellular mechanisms. Sensory use, disuse, and training drive long-term potentiation and depression (LTP and LTD), homeostatic synaptic plasticity and plasticity of intrinsic excitability, and structural changes including formation, removal, and morphological remodeling of cortical synapses and dendritic spines. Both excitatory and inhibitory circuits are strongly regulated by experience. This review summarizes these findings and proposes that these mechanisms map onto specific functional components of plasticity, which occur in common across the primary somatosensory, visual, and auditory cortices.

Heidi Johansen-Berg and Matthew F.S. Rushworth

Diffusion imaging can be used to estimate the routes taken by fiber pathways connecting different regions of the living brain. This approach has already supplied novel insights into in vivo human brain anatomy. For example, by detecting where connection patterns change, one can define anatomical borders between cortical regions or subcortical nuclei in the living human brain for the first time. Because diffusion tractography is a relatively new technique, however, it is important to assess its validity critically. We discuss the degree to which diffusion tractography meets the requirements of a technique to assess structural connectivity and how its results compare to those from the gold-standard tract tracing methods in nonhuman animals. We conclude that although tractography offers novel opportunities it also raises significant challenges to be addressed by further validation studies to define precisely the limitations and scope of this exciting new technique.

Nicholas G. Hatsopoulos and John P. Donoghue

The ultimate goal of neural interface research is to create links between the nervous system and the outside world either by stimulating or by recording from neural tissue to treat or assist people with sensory, motor, or other disabilities of neural function. Although electrical stimulation systems have already reached widespread clinical application, neural interfaces that record neural signals to decipher movement intentions are only now beginning to develop into clinically viable systems to help paralyzed people. We begin by reviewing state-of-the-art research and early-stage clinical recording systems and focus on systems that record single-unit action potentials. We then address the potential for neural interface research to enhance basic scientific understanding of brain function by offering unique insights in neural coding and representation, plasticity, brain-behavior relations, and the neurobiology of disease. Finally, we discuss technical and scientific challenges faced by these systems before they are widely adopted by severely motor-disabled patients.

Brian A. Wilt, Laurie D. Burns, Eric Tatt Wei Ho, Kunal K. Ghosh, Eran A. Mukamel, and Mark J. Schnitzer

Since the work of Golgi and Cajal, light microscopy has remained a key tool for neuroscientists to observe cellular properties. Ongoing advances have enabled new experimental capabilities using light to inspect the nervous system across multiple spatial scales, including ultrastructural scales finer than the optical diffraction limit. Other progress permits functional imaging at faster speeds, at greater depths in brain tissue, and over larger tissue volumes than previously possible. Portable, miniaturized fluorescence microscopes now allow brain imaging in freely behaving mice. Complementary progress on animal preparations has enabled imaging in head-restrained behaving animals, as well as time-lapse microscopy studies in the brains of live subjects. Mouse genetic approaches permit mosaic and inducible fluorescence-labeling strategies, whereas intrinsic contrast mechanisms allow in vivo imaging of animals and humans without use of exogenous markers. This review surveys such advances and highlights emerging capabilities of particular interest to neuroscientists.

Symposium : A Revolution in Fluorescence Imaging

11 02 2009


This coming Tuesday and Wednesday (Feb 17th & 18th) at UCSD, there will be a symposium honoring Roger Tsien, featuring presentations from 32 former and current members of the Tsien Lab. The topics are quite diverse, concentrated in genetically-encoded indicators, but also featuring fluorescent cell penetrating peptides for cancer therapy, photophore ligases for imaging synaptic development, and even a radical new design for the internal combustion engine.

The quality of speakers and subjects looks to be outstanding.  Here is a complete schedule.  You may notice that at 11:15 AM on Tuesday in Price Center East Ballroom, I will be presenting recent progress we have made in the development of genetically-encoded calcium indicators and their application to in vivo imaging.  Don’t miss that one!  🙂  Roger’s talk, which will assuredly be equal parts absorbing, humorous, and illuminating, is at 4pm Wednesday in the Price Center Theater.

If you live in Southern California and are interesting in imaging technology, there isn’t a better place to be than this symposium.  If you can’t make it, Brain Windows will have a full write-up following the event.

Here is the un-official schedule.

Tuesday February 17th – Price Center East Ballroom

9:00 -9:05 Varda  Levram -Ellisman Opening

9:05-9:15 Palmer Taylor

Designing the next generation of genetically encoded sensors

9:15-9:30 Roger Heim

FRET for compound screening at Aurora/Vertex

9:30-9:45 Amy Palmer

Designing and using genetically encoded sensors: Lessons I learned from Roger

9:45-10:00 Robert Campbell

Beyond brightness: colony screens for fluorescent protein photo stability and biosensor FRET changes

10:00-10:15 Colette Dooley

GFP sensors for reactive oxygen species: Tying up loose ends and looking forward.

10:15-10:30 Peter Wang

Fluorescent Proteins and FRET biosensors for visualizing cell motility and mechanotransduction

Fluorescent proteins in neuroscience

11:00-11:15 Brian Bacskai

Aberrant calcium homeostasis in the Alzheimer mouse brain

11:15-11:30 Andrew Hires

Watching a mouse think: Novel fluorescent genetically-encoded calcium indicators applied to in vivo brain imaging

11:30-11:45 Alice Ting

Imaging synapse development with engineered photophore ligases

11:45-12:00 Rex Kerr

3D calcium imaging in C. elegans

Clinical applications

12:00-12:15 Todd Aguilera

Activatable Cell Penetrating Peptides for use in clinical contrast agent and therapeutic development

12:15-12:30 Quyen Nguyen

Surgery with Molecular Fluorescence Imaging Guidance

Fluorescent probes (Chemistry)

1:30-1:45 Tito Gonzalez

Voltage-Sensitive FRET Probes & Applications

1:45-2:00 Paul Negulescu

From watching ions to moving them

2:00-2:15 Timothy Dore

Roger-Inspired Photochemistry: Releasing Biological Effectors with 2PE

2:00-2:15 Joe Kao

Electron Paramagnetic Resonance Imaging in Living Animals

2:15-2:30 Brent Martin

Chemical probes for studying protein acylation

2:30-2:45 Jianghong Rao

Non-GFP based probes for imaging of the hydrolytic enzyme activity

Cellular research with and without Fluorescent probes

3:15-3:30 Carsten Schultz

Cell membrane repair visualized by GFP fusion proteins

3:30-3:45 David Green

Transcriptomes and Systems Biology: application to early mammalian embryogenesis

3:45-4:00 Clotilde Randriamampita

Paradoxical aspects of T cell activation revealed with fluorescent proteins

4:15-4:30 Wen-Hong Li

Studying dynamic cell-cell communication in vivo by Trojan-LAMP

4:30-4:45 Martin Poenie

Aim and Shoot: Two roles for dynein in T cell effector function

4:45-5:00 Gregor Zlokarnik

From bla to blah, blah in 20 years

5:00-5:15                        James Sharp

President, Zeiss MicroImaging Gmbh

February 18 2009 – Leichtag 107

Cellular research with and without fluorescent proteins

9:00-9:15 David Zacharias

Fluorescent Proteins, Palmitoylation and Cancer: two out of three ain’t bad

9:15-9:30 Jin Zhang

Visualization of Cell Signaling Dynamics: A Tale of MAPK

9:30-9:45 Paul Sammak

Nuclear organization and movement in pluripotent stem cells measured by Histone GFP H2B

Branching out

9:45-10:00 Yong Yao

NIH Toolbox Program

10:00-10:15 Oded Tour

The Tour Engine – A novel Internal Combustion Engine with the potential to boost efficiency and cut emissions

Into the future

10:45-11:00 Xiaokun Shu

Visibly and infrared fluorescent proteins: photophysics and engineering

11:00-11:15 Michael Lin

Engineering fluorescent proteins for visualizing newly synthesized proteins and improving FRET-based biosensors

11:15-11:30 Jeremy Babendure

Training our next generation of Fluorescent Protein Enthusiasts

Main Event – Price Center Theater

4:00-5:00 Roger Tsien

Chancellor invitational lecture 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Some interesting posters @ SfN

20 11 2008

Here’s a few posters that caught my eye at SfN.  Click the meeting planner for the full abstract

Optimizing two-photon activation of channelrhodopsin-2 for stimulation at cellular resolution


Spiral pattern of 2-photon excitation can drive neurons to spike.  A low NA objective helps. Need to do piezo-based Z-scanning if you use high NA, don’t with low NA.

In vivo two-photon imaging 1 mm deep into cortical brain tissue with novel microprism probe 


A cute method to image 1mm into cortex with 2-photon imaging. They used 2-6 month old mice. The just took a triangular prism whose hypotenuse was silvered and stuck it in the cortex. Then they internally reflected the beam off the prism and fired it sideways into cortex. Got good SNR to 300um lateral distance.  Some clippling of beam at edges of the prism gave somewhat inconsistent spatial resolution.

Self-complementary adeno-associated viral vectors for fast, efficient labeling of neurons and astrocytes in visual cortex in vivo


AAV is the way to go for expression of GECIs and ChR2 in vivo, but it takes a long time to express at high levels (2 weeks). They show that using a double stranded DNA version of AAV rather than single stranded gets protein expression up high much faster. Very high expression after one week. This is because the virus doesn’t need to take the time to make the second strand before expressing the protein.  See Xiao, X J. Virol 1998

Detection of single action potentials in vitro and in vivo with genetically-encoded Ca2+ sensors


Everything in the poster was in the Nature Methods paper.  Conversation reveled that YC3.60 works as well or better than D3cpv. Only have done up to whisker evoked stimulation, no imaging of spontaneous YC3.60 signals yet.

Characterization of improved probes for the hybrid voltage sensor method of voltage imaging


A nice little sensor optimization poster.  They took the hVOS hybrid voltage sensor of dipicrylamine with membrane tethered GFP and improved it by changing the chromophore to Cerulean, and by using the “membrane-staple” strategy. Having membrane anchors on both the N and C-termini gave better quenching. Fast response, ~0.5ms, and 20% dF/F.

Crystal structure of the genetically encoded calcium indicator gcamp2


Jasper made crystal structures of G-CaMP2 in the apo and bound states.  Bound states crystalized as a heterodimer, but he was able to also crystalize the monomer. The structures show a pore to the chromophore in the apo state that is plugged in the Ca-bound state. Thus, the quenched apo state is due to solvent access to the chromophore.  This structural data should help rational design of better G-CaMP sensors.

SFN Neuroscience Picower MIT Party 2008

10 11 2008

Lots of people searching for “SFN MIT party” for this information in google… Here’s the answer you are looking for.  Right next to the convention center. Much more convenient than three years ago at Cobalt.  No excuse to be late…

Someone send me an invite to the Neuron, Nature and Emory parties, pretty please! 


Is that a man in a tuxedo wearing stilts?

Is that a man in a tuxedo wearing stilts?



The Picower Institute, The McGovern Institute, and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT

Invite you to the sixth annual party at the 2008 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience

Monday, November 17th, 2008  

9pm – 2am  

Avenue Nightclub
649 New York Ave NW

Washington, DC

UPDATED : UCSD Neuroscience Movies Back Online

27 03 2008

Almost every year, the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate program makes a movie or performs some skits lampooning the faculty (and sometimes other students). These videos used to be hosted on my server in the Tsien Lab, but that machine came with me to DC. I’ve finally taken the time to re-encode them and upload them to Google Video. I also uncovered the DVD of the excellent 2003 movie “Les Lettres Perdues”. The video quality is not as good from this host as from a private server, but at least they will be universally accessible. Email me if you want a higher quality version.

UCSD Neuroscience Skits 2006

The Investigator – UCSD Neuroscience Movie 2005

Les Lettres Perdues – UCSD Neuroscience Movie 2003

Tsien Lab Baby

UCSD vs. MIT SFN Party Smackdown

3 11 2007

The Society for Neuroscience conference starts today in America’s Finest City (San Diego). The question on everyone’s mind is, who is going to throw the best party? Sure there are plenty of themed mixers and socials, but few really stay interesting for long.

The past few years, the Picower Center for Learning and Memory at MIT has consistently had the biggest bash, really peaking in 2006 at the eye-popping Atlanta mega-club Compound. With a big open bar tab that unfortunately gets drained within an hour, and an open invitation, these are always packed with people early on, go strong till last call, and feature plenty of Neuroscience ‘star power’. This year, the party starts Monday at 9pm at Deco’s on 5th Ave. in the Gaslamp. Get there early, as Deco’s is a relatively small place.

Nature and Neuron each throw lower-key parties, with the best hors d’oeuvres and are definitely the place to do serious science/business networking. Security is pretty loose, as long as you let the door know that you know that the party is for Nature or Neuron. When and where these parties might be in San Diego is under intense investigation by BrainWindows staff.

The most exclusive of all are the mysterious Emory parties, where you better bring the printout of your personalized invitation email if you want to get in.

This year, there is a new group that is trying to dethrone the PCLM as hosts of the biggest event. UCSD Neurosciences is hosting an open-invite, open-bar event this Sunday at Aubergine, at 4th & Island in the Gaslamp. The bar tab opens at 9pm, and if the PCLM parties are any guide, I would get there at 9. Bring friends!

UCSD Neurosciences Party

Who will impress the community the most? PCLM has a five year reputation, and the experience of Earl Miller and Susumu Tonegawa behind it. But UCSD knows San Diego, and it’s grad-student run social committee has held numerous, very successful local events. As a soon-to-be alum of both UCSD and PCLM, I’m looking forward to finding out who does it best. See you there!

Breakthrough in Far-field Optical Nanoscopy

8 10 2007

Its thesis crunch time for me, so I have had limited time to do ‘extracurricular’ reading and reporting for Brainwindows. However, there have been some very exciting developments in the field of superresolution fluorescence imaging that deserve a mention.

First, let’s take a look at this excellent review of far-field superresolution imaging techniques by Stefan Hell. I was almost able to understand the basics of the current techniques after reading it. Hopefully my summary doesn’t contain too many errors ☺.

Axial resolution is particularly bad in conventional superresolution techniques. Confocal imaging and 2 photon imaging provides ~450 nm resolution at best, while 4Pi microscopy with immersion lenses above and below the sample has delivered ~100nm axial resolution images of fixed and live cells. Lens aperture is the limiting factor in 4Pi and I5M imaging systems. These systems do not break the diffraction limit; they just push it.

In the absence of bleaching, fluorescent molecules can be localized to arbitrary precision (1nm) provided there are no other spectrally identical molecules within <lamda/2n. How do we constrain the coordinates of excited molecules? The new far-field superresolution techniques rely on sequential recording of fluorescent markers in a light state that is switchable with a dark state. Hell’s approach of stimulated emission depletion (STED) illuminates a sample with two beams, a short-wavelength excitation beam surrounded by a longer-wavelength, donut-shaped beam. The donut beam produces stimulated emission that drives the fluorophores in the excited (S1) state back to the ground (S0) state by photon emission of identical wavelength. These long wavelength photons are discarded. This process competes with excitation from the short-wavelength laser. Only in the very center of the donut does the S1 excited state, driven by absorption of the short-wavelength excitation beam, last long enough to decay with a photon of wavelength between the excitation beam and the stimulated emission beam. This donut is scanned across the sample and the intermediate wavelength emission photons are collected. In practice, STEM has yielded axial resolution of 100nm with a single lens and 33-60nm in conjunction with 4Pi imaging. STED is expected to reach 10nm resolution with more advanced 4Pi setups.

Other STED like systems include:

Ground state depletion (GSD) – The depletion donut is produced by pumping the dye to metastable triplet state, which decays much more slowly than the S1 state. This requires far less laser power (100kW/cm2) than STED and only single-wavelength illumination, but has been practically limited by photobleaching in the triplet state.

Saturated structured illumination microscopy (SSIM/SPEM) – Sample is illuminated with structured sharp lines between saturated S1 states and dark S0 states. The illumination pattern is shifted and rotated. Superresolution images can be computationally reconstructed from the results. Demonstrated lateral resolution of 50nm with beads.

RESOLFT – Photochemical rather than photophysical state transitions using photoswitchable fluorescent proteins such as Dronpa and asFP595. Can be done with ultralow laser power (10W/cm2).

The practical limitation with these methods is that the rate of fluorophore bleaching is dependent on the number of state transitions it makes. All of these methods induce a large number of cycles per usable photon coming out. Therefore, the power of these techniques should be improved with more bleach-resistant dyes and fluorescent proteins.

Two competing methods that are not as sensitive to cycling induced bleaching are photoactivatable localization microscopy (PALM) and stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM). Rather than precisely define the location of fluorescence emission as in STED, these techniques use an ultradim laser to stochastically activate a constellation of well-spaced fluorophores throughout the sample. In PALM, these are then repeatedly excited with a different wavelength laser till bleached and their centroids are determined. The process is repeated and computationally summed till a superresolution (2-25nm) Seurat-like image is composed. A major benefit of this approach is that the fluorophores are efficiently used. Each fluorophore is switched on only once, and a maximal amount of photons is collected from it until bleaching. A limitation of the approach is that the sequential integration of images requires long imaging periods (hours), so far making it useful only for immobile proteins or fixed tissues. If background noise can be reduced enough to permit wide-field camera-based recording rather than laser-scanning, the acquisition rate should be greatly enhanced.

Now, let’s look at the new paper.

A major thrust of the PALM/STORM groups has been to develop multi-color labeling methods, so the interaction between two or more proteins can be studied. Xiaowei Zhuang’s group has recently demonstrated a system of photoactivatable dye pairs that theoretically allow up to nine color imaging. Long-wavelength ‘reporter’ cyanine dyes (Cy5, Cy5.5 or Cy7) are paired with shorter-wavelength ‘activator’ dyes (A405, Cy2, Cy3) on a single antibody. The reporter section of dye pairs can be selectively activated by laser pulses at 405, 457, or 532 nm, dependent on the activator section. Illumination with a red laser then produces a short period of fluorescence, whose emission wavelength is dependent on the reporter dye. Following this fluorescence, the reporter transitions to a dark state, which can be reactivated with another short-wavelength pulse.

Using dim activation pulses similar to PALM, the authors demonstrate three-color imaging of immobilized DNA molecules and two-color imaging of antibody-stained proteins in fixed cells with ~25nm resolution. The typical image used TIRF illumination and consisted of 2000-100,000 passes of recorded at 19Hz on a CCD camera. Thus, high quality images required as little as 2 minutes to record. There was some spectral crosstalk and false activation of the dye pairs that they were able to statistically correct. The spread in the localization of the antibody on a protein is now a significant contributor to the optical resolution limit.

These super-resolution techniques are getting very close to being usable in living samples, with both PALM and STORM making very quick progress. Be sure to check out the beautiful pictures in the paper figs.

An update on new FRET Biosensor software

2 07 2007

Apologies for the long delay between updates. I’ve been writing up and editing my work, also spent the last 3 weeks at the CSHL Ion Channel Physiology course. Jeff Diamond, Mark Farrant, Kenton Swartz and Michael Hausser ran a very informative and entertaining program. So, what’s new in FRET sensor land?

Producing useful FRET sensors requires some structural insight, theoretical knowledge, patience to screen many variants, and luck. Making a new sensor that works marginally well is often not that difficult. However, making a reversible sensor with high speed and S/N takes a lot of time and effort. How does a researcher select the protein substrate, linker sequences and fluorescent proteins from the vast space available? A new paper and software from Kevin Truong’s group aims to help guide the researcher towards good candidates.

In the paper, the authors present a simple computational strategy for determining optimal sensor constituants. A PDB file of the sensor substrate is fused to two FP structures via fully flexible linkers. A large number of possible conformations is then sampled, with predicted FRET efficiency calculated for each, then averaged. The authors compared the simulated mean emission ratios between several variations of genetically encoded calcium sensors. In general, there was poor correlation between the simulated emission ratios and experimentally determined ratios across different classes of sensor. However, within sensors grouped by substrate, the change in simulated ratio between variations was qualitatively predictive of the difference in experimentally determined ratios.

They also investigate the effects of various cpVenus substituations into YC2.1. These change the relative orientation of the chromophores and can lead to improved sensors. Again, the changes in simulated ratios were qualitatively predictive of experimentally determined ratios. Interestingly, the simulated ratios only changed from 0.25% to 10%, while experimentally, they varied from 0 to 210%. Although the simulations match the rank order of experimental response, why is there such a disconnect in the magnitude of the change? Perhaps this is due to the flexibility in the modeled linkers.

How useful will this FPMOD software be to developers of FRET sensors? It doesn’t (yet) incorporate linker rigidity, FP dimerization tendency, interactions with endogenous proteins, conformational kinetics or bleaching. Without these factors, will it be useful in predicting those rare “super-responders” like YC3.60, not to mention the current concerns with optimization of in vivo performance? How well does it work for ligands other than calcium?

Luckily, the Truong group has made the software binaries freely available for all of us to download and play with. It would be great to publish the source code to see how it all works. Perhaps as a group, the scientific community could dramatically improve the functionality of the package. Although the GUI front end is clean and functional, I’d also like to see documentation of each parameter, as it is confusing for a newbie like me to figure out how to run the package properly. Just a few more hours work on documentation would yield a great increase in usefulness of the software. Even with these caveats, FPMOD looks like a significant step forward towards rational design of FRET sensors. Any serious FRET sensor developer would be remiss to not carefully read the paper and test how well the software works in his or her system.