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Durham University

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Publication details for Prof. J.A. Gareth Williams

Baggaley, E, Weinstein, JA & Williams, JAG (2014). Time-resolved emission imaging microscopy using phosphorescent metal complexes: taking FLIM and PLIM to new lengths. In Structure and Bonding. Lo, KKW Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.

Author(s) from Durham


Luminescent metal complexes are increasingly being investigated as emissive probes and sensors for cell imaging using what is traditionally termed fluorescence microscopy. The nature of the emission in the case of second- and third-row metal complexes is phosphorescence rather than fluorescence, as it emanates from triplet rather than singlet excited states, but the usual terminology overlooks the distinction between the quantum mechanical origins of the processes. In steady-state imaging, such metal complexes may be alternatives to widely used fluorescent organic molecules, used in exactly the same way but offering advantages such as ease of synthesis and colour tuning. However, there is a striking difference compared to fluorescent organic molecules, namely the much longer lifetime of phosphorescence compared to fluorescence. Phosphorescence lifetimes of metal complexes are typically around a microsecond compared to the nanosecond values found for fluorescence of organic molecules. In this contribution, we will discuss how these long lifetimes can be put to practical use. Applications such as time-gated imaging allow discrimination from background fluorescence in cells and tissues, while increased sensitivity to quenchers provides a means of designing more responsive probes, for example, for oxygen. We also describe how the technique of fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) – which provides images based on lifetimes at different points in the image – can be extended from the usual nanosecond range to microseconds. Key developments in instrumentation as well as the properties of complexes suitable for the purpose are discussed, including the use of two-photon excitation methods. A number of different research groups have made pioneering contributions to the instrumental set-ups, but the terminology and acronyms have not developed in a systematic way. We review the distinction between time-gating (to eliminate background emission) and true time-resolved imaging (whereby decay kinetics at each point in an image are monitored). For instance, terms such as PLIM (phosphorescence lifetime imaging microscopy) and TRLM (time-resolved luminescence microscopy) refer essentially to the same technique, whilst TREM (time-resolved emission imaging microscopy) embraces these long timescale methods as well as the more well-established technique of FLIM.