Cells and organelles are delimited by lipid bilayers in which high deformability is essential to many cell processes, including motility, endocytosis and cell division. Membrane tension is therefore a major regulator of the cell processes that remodel membranes, albeit one that is very hard to measure in vivo. Here we show that a planarizable push–pull fluorescent probe called FliptR (fluorescent lipid tension reporter) can monitor changes in membrane tension by changing its fluorescence lifetime as a function of the twist between its fluorescent groups. The fluorescence lifetime depends linearly on membrane tension within cells, enabling an easy quantification of membrane tension by fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy. We further show, using model membranes, that this linear dependency between lifetime of the probe and membrane tension relies on a membrane-tension-dependent lipid phase separation. We also provide calibration curves that enable accurate measurement of membrane tension using fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy.

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The authors thank V. Mercier, G. Molinard and M. Laporte for technical support and useful scientific discussions. The authors thank the NMR, MS and Bioimaging platforms for services, and the University of Geneva, the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Chemical Biology, the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering and the Swiss NSF for financial support. A.R. acknowledges funding from the Human Frontier Science Program CDA-0061-08, the Swiss National Fund for Research grants nos. 31003A_130520, 31003A_149975 and 31003A_173087, and the European Research Council Starting Grant no. 311536 (2011 call). E.D. acknowledges funding from Human Frontier Science Program (LT00305/2011-L).

Author information

Author notes

    • Emmanuel Derivery

    Present address: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Cambridge, UK


  1. Biochemistry Department, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

    • Adai Colom
    • , Emmanuel Derivery
    • , Caterina Tomba
    • , Marcos González-Gaitán
    •  & Aurélien Roux
  2. Swiss National Centre for Competence in Research Programme Chemical Biology, Geneva, Switzerland

    • Adai Colom
    • , Emmanuel Derivery
    • , Saeideh Soleimanpour
    • , Marta Dal Molin
    • , Naomi Sakai
    • , Marcos González-Gaitán
    • , Stefan Matile
    •  & Aurélien Roux
  3. School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland

    • Adai Colom
    • , Emmanuel Derivery
    • , Saeideh Soleimanpour
    • , Caterina Tomba
    • , Marta Dal Molin
    • , Naomi Sakai
    • , Marcos González-Gaitán
    • , Stefan Matile
    •  & Aurélien Roux


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A.C., N.S., S.M. and A.R. designed the project. S.S. and M.D.M. synthesized the FliptR probe. E.D. and M.G.-G. designed and performed initial FLIM measurements. C.T. developed and made vertical PDMS walls for MDCK cell culture. A.C. performed all other experiments and analysis. A.C., E.D., N.S., S.M. and A.R. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aurélien Roux.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures, and Video Captions

  2. Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Video 1

    Staining of cells with FliptR

  4. Supplementary Video 2

    Fast-FLIM time-lapse of HELA cells under hyperosmotic shock

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