Fluorescent proteins are widely used as fusion tags to detect protein expression in vivo. To become fluorescent, these proteins must undergo chromophore maturation, a slow process with a half-time of 5 to >30 min that causes delays in real-time detection of protein expression. Here, we engineer a genetically-encoded fluorescent biosensor to enable detection of protein expression within seconds in live cells. This sensor for transiently-expressed proteins (STEP) is based on a fully matured but dim green fluorescent protein in which pre-existing fluorescence increases 11-fold in vivo following the specific and rapid binding of a protein tag (Kd 120 nM, kon 1.7 × 105 M−1s−1). In live E. coli cells, our STEP biosensor enables detection of protein expression twice as fast as the use of standard fluorescent protein fusions. Our biosensor opens the door to the real-time study of short-timescale processes in research model animals with high spatiotemporal resolution.
Genetically-encoded fluorescent biosensor for rapid detection of protein expression