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Cyanine dyes in biophysical research: the photophysics of polymethine fluorescent dyes in biomolecular environments

  • Marcia Levitus (a1) (a2) (a3) and Suman Ranjit (a1) (a2)


The breakthroughs in single molecule spectroscopy of the last decade and the recent advances in super resolution microscopy have boosted the popularity of cyanine dyes in biophysical research. These applications have motivated the investigation of the reactions and relaxation processes that cyanines undergo in their electronically excited states. Studies show that the triplet state is a key intermediate in the photochemical reactions that limit the photostability of cyanine dyes. The removal of oxygen greatly reduces photobleaching, but induces rapid intensity fluctuations (blinking). The existence of non-fluorescent states lasting from milliseconds to seconds was early identified as a limitation in single-molecule spectroscopy and a potential source of artifacts. Recent studies demonstrate that a combination of oxidizing and reducing agents is the most efficient way of guaranteeing that the ground state is recovered rapidly and efficiently. Thiol-containing reducing agents have been identified as the source of long-lived dark states in some cyanines that can be photochemically switched back to the emissive state. The mechanism of this process is the reversible addition of the thiol-containing compound to a double bond in the polymethine chain resulting in a non-fluorescent molecule. This process can be reverted by irradiation at shorter wavelengths. Another mechanism that leads to non-fluorescent states in cyanine dyes is cis–trans isomerization from the singlet-excited state. This process, which competes with fluorescence, involves the rotation of one-half of the molecule with respect to the other with an efficiency that depends strongly on steric effects. The efficiency of fluorescence of most cyanine dyes has been shown to depend dramatically on their molecular environment within the biomolecule. For example, the fluorescence quantum yield of Cy3 linked covalently to DNA depends on the type of linkage used for attachment, DNA sequence and secondary structure. Cyanines linked to the DNA termini have been shown to be mostly stacked at the end of the helix, while cyanines linked to the DNA internally are believed to partially bind to the minor or major grooves. These interactions not only affect the photophysical properties of the probes but also create a large uncertainty in their orientation.


Corresponding author

*Author for correspondence: M. Levitus, PO Box 875601, Tempe, AZ 85287-5601, USA. Tel.: (480) 727-8586; Fax: (480) 727-2378; Email:


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