Tryptophan fluorescence intensity decay in proteins is modeled by multiexponential functions characterized by lifetimes and preexponential factors. Commonly, multiple conformations of the protein are invoked to explain the recovery of two or more lifetimes from the experimental data. However, in many proteins the structure seems to preclude the possibility of multiple conformers sufficiently different from one another to justify such an inference. We present here another plausible multiexponential model based on the assumption that an energetically excited donor surrounded by N acceptor molecules decays by specific radiative and radiationless relaxation processes, and by transferring its energy to acceptors present in or close to the protein matrix. If interactions between the acceptors themselves and back energy transfer are neglected, we show that the intensity decay function contain 2N exponential components characterized by the unperturbed donor lifetime, by energy transfer rates and a probability of occurrence for the corresponding process. We applied this model to the fluorescence decay of holo- and apoazurin, ribonuclease T1, and the reduced single tryptophan mutant (W28F) of thioredoxin. Use of a multiexponential model for the analysis of the fluorescence intensity decay can therefore be justified, without invoking multiple protein conformations.
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