HaloTag9: an engineered protein tag for fluorescence lifetime multiplexing
Self-labeling protein tags have become important tools in fluorescence microscopy. Their use in combination with fluorogenic fluorophores, which only become fluorescent when bound to their protein target, makes them particularly suitable for live-cell applications. The fluorogenic turn-on observed upon labeling as well as the photophysical properties of the fluorophore are mainly determined by the protein surface near the fluorophore binding site. However, up to now, most efforts have been invested in the development of new fluorophores and only little attention has been paid to the engineering of the self-labeling protein tag.
Here we report on the structure-guided engineering of HaloTag7 to modulate the brightness and fluorescence lifetime of bound rhodamines. Specifically, we developed HaloTag9, which showed up to 40% higher brightness in cellulo and 20% higher fluorescence lifetime than HaloTag7 upon labeling with rhodamines. This makes it an ideal tag for imaging techniques such as confocal microscopy or stimulated emission depletion microscopy. In addition, combining HaloTag7 and HaloTag9 enabled us to perform live-cell fluorescence lifetime multiplexing using a single fluorophore. The difference in fluorescence lifetime was further exploited to generate a chemigenetic fluorescence lifetime based biosensor to monitor cell cycle progression. Overall, our work highlights that the combination of protein engineering and chemical synthesis can generate imaging tools with outstanding properties. We expect HaloTag9 to be beneficial for a multitude of live-cell microscopy applications.
 Michelle S. Frei, Miroslaw Tarnawski, Julia Roberti, Birgit Koch, Julien Hiblot, Kai Johnsson, BioRxiv, 2021, doi.org/10.1101/2021.04.01.438024.