Fluorophores are sometimes used alone, as a tracer in fluids, as a dye for staining of certain structures, as a substrate of enzymes, or as a probe or indicator (when its fluorescence is affected by environmental aspects such as polarity or ions). More generally they are covalently bonded to a macromolecule, serving as a marker (or dye, or tag, or reporter) for affine or bioactive reagents (antibodies, peptides, nucleic acids). Fluorophores are notably used to stain tissues, cells, or materials in a variety of analytical methods, i.e., fluorescent imaging and spectroscopy.
Fluorescein, by its amine reactive isothiocyanate derivative FITC, has been one of the most popular fluorophores. From antibody labeling, the applications have spread to nucleic acids thanks to (FAM (Carboxyfluorescein), TET,...). Other historically common fluorophores are derivatives of rhodamine (TRITC), coumarin, and cyanine. Newer generations of fluorophores, many of which are proprietary, often perform better, being more photostable, brighter, and/or less pH-sensitive than traditional dyes with comparable excitation and emission.
The fluorophore absorbs light energy of a specific wavelength and re-emits light at a longer wavelength. The absorbed wavelengths, energy transfer efficiency, and time before emission depend on both the fluorophore structure and its chemical environment, as the molecule in its excited state interacts with surrounding molecules. Wavelengths of maximum absorption (≈ excitation) and emission (for example, Absorption/Emission = 485 nm/517 nm) are the typical terms used to refer to a given fluorophore, but the whole spectrum may be important to consider. The excitation wavelength spectrum may be a very narrow or broader band, or it may be all beyond a cutoff level. The emission spectrum is usually sharper than the excitation spectrum, and it is of a longer wavelength and correspondingly lower energy. Excitation energies range from ultraviolet through the visible spectrum, and emission energies may continue from visible light into the near infrared region.
Main characteristics of fluorophores are :
These characteristics drive other properties, including the photobleaching or photoresistance (loss of fluorescence upon continuous light excitation). Other parameters should be considered, as the polarity of the fluorophore molecule, the fluorophore size and shape (i.e. for polarization fluorescence pattern), and other factors can change the behavior of fluorophores.