An Optical Technique for Mapping Microviscosity Dynamics in Cellular Organelles

07 Jun 2018

Microscopic viscosity (microviscosity) is a key determinant of diffusion in the cell and defines the rate of biological processes occurring at the nanoscale, including enzyme-driven metabolism and protein folding. Here we establish a Rotor-based Organelle Viscosity Imaging (ROVI) methodology that enables real-time quantitative mapping of cell microviscosity. This approach uses environment sensitive dyes termed molecular rotors, covalently linked to genetically encoded probes to provide compartment specific microviscosity measurements via fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM). ROVI visualised spatial and temporal dynamics of microviscosity with sub-organellar resolution, reporting on a microviscosity difference of nearly an order of magnitude between subcellular compartments. In the mitochondrial matrix, ROVI revealed several striking findings: a broad heterogeneity of microviscosity amongst individual mitochondria, unparalleled resilience to osmotic stress, and real-time changes in microviscosity during mitochondrial depolarisation. These findings demonstrate the use of ROVI to explore the biophysical mechanisms underlying cell biological processes.