Fluorescence fluctuation spectroscopy (FFS) quantifies the interactions of fluorescently-labeled proteins inside living cells by brightness analysis. However, the study of cytoplasmic proteins that interact with the plasma membrane is challenging with FFS. If the cytoplasmic section is thinner than the axial size of the observation volume, cytoplasmic and membrane-bound proteins are coexcited, which leads to brightness artifacts. This brightness bias, if not recognized, leads to erroneous interpretation of the data. We have overcome this challenge by introducing dual-color z-scan FFS and the addition of a distinctly colored reference protein. Here, we apply this technique to study the cytoplasmic interactions of the Gag proteins from human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1). The Gag protein plays a crucial role in the assembly of retroviruses and is found in both membrane and cytoplasm. Dual-color z-scans demonstrate that brightness artifacts are caused by a dim nonpunctate membrane-bound fraction of Gag. We perform an unbiased brightness characterization of cytoplasmic Gag by avoiding the membrane-bound fraction and reveal previously unknown differences in the behavior of the two retroviral Gag species. HIV-1 Gag exhibits concentration-dependent oligomerization in the cytoplasm, whereas HTLV-1 Gag lacks significant cytoplasmic Gag-Gag interactions.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work is supported by National Institutes of Health grants No. R01GM064589 (to J.D.M.) and No. R21AI81673 (to J.D.M., Y.C., and L.M.M.). K.H.F. was supported by grant No. T32 CA09138 (Cancer Biology Training Grant) and I.F.G. was supported by National Institutes of Health grant No. T32 DE07288 (MinnCResT Program).