Confocal microscopy is widely used for acquiring high spatial resolution tissue sample images of interesting fluorescent molecules inside cells. The fluorescent molecules are often tagged proteins participating in a biological function. The high spatial resolution of confocal microscopy compared to wide field imaging comes from an ability to optically isolate and image exceedingly small volume elements made up of the lateral (focal plane) and depth dimensions. Confocal microscopy at the optical diffraction limit images volumes on the order of ̃0.5 femtoliter (10-15 L). Further resolution enhancement can be achieved with total internal reflection microscopy (TIRM). With TIRM, an exponentially decaying electromagnetic field (near-field) established on the surface of the sample defines a subdiffraction limit dimension that, when combined with conventional confocal microscopy, permits image formation from <7 attoL (10-18 L) volumes [Borejdo et al. (2006) Biochim. Biophys. Acta, in press]. Demonstrated here is a new variation of TIRM, focused TIRM (fTIRM) that decreases the volume element to ∼3 attoL. These estimates were verified experimentally by measuring characteristic times for Brownian motion of fluorescent nanospheres through the volume elements. A novel application for TIRM is in situ single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy. Single-molecule studies of protein structure and function are well-known to avoid the ambiguities introduced by ensemble averaging. In situ, proteins are subjected to the native forces of the crowded environment in the cell that are not present in vitro. The attoL fluorescence detection volume of TIRM permits isolation of single proteins in situ. Muscle tissue contains myosin at a ∼20 μM concentration. Evidence is provided that >75% of the bleachable fluorescence detected with fTIRM is emitted by five chromophore-labeled myosins in a muscle fiber.
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