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We describe an optical method capable of tracking a single fluorescent molecule with a flexible choice of high spatial accuracy (approximately 10-20 nm standard deviation or approximately 20-40 nm full-width-at-half-maximum) and temporal resolution (< 1 ms). The fluorescence signal during individual passages of fluorescent molecules through a spot of excitation light allows the sequential localization and thus spatio-temporal tracking of the molecule if its fluorescence is collected on at least three separate point detectors arranged in close proximity. We show two-dimensional trajectories of individual, small organic dye labeled lipids diffusing in the plasma membrane of living cells and directly observe transient events of trapping on < 20 nm spatial scales. The trapping is cholesterol-assisted and much more pronounced for a sphingo- than for a phosphoglycero-lipid, with average trapping times of approximately 15 ms and < 4 ms, respectively. The results support previous STED nanoscopy measurements and suggest that, at least for nontreated cells, the transient interaction of a single lipid is confined to macromolecular dimensions. Our experimental approach demonstrates that fast molecular movements can be tracked with minimal invasion, which can reveal new important details of cellular nano-organization.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





6829 - 6834


Animals, Cell Membrane, Diffusion, Kidney, Membrane Lipids, Membrane Microdomains, Microscopy, Confocal, Potoroidae, Probability, Reproducibility of Results, Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted, Time Factors