Toward Understanding the Subcellular Distributions of Cholesterol and Sphingolipids Using High-Resolution NanoSIMS Imaging

Melanie A. Brunet, Mary L. Kraft

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


ConspectusCharacterizing the subcellular distributions of biomolecules of interest is a basic inquiry that helps inform on the potential roles of these molecules in biological functions. Presently, the functions of specific lipid species and cholesterol are not well understood, partially because cholesterol and lipid species of interest are difficult to image with high spatial resolution but without perturbing them. Because cholesterol and lipids are relatively small and their distributions are influenced by noncovalent interactions with other biomolecules, functionalizing them with relatively large labels that permit their detection may alter their distributions in membranes and between organelles. This challenge has been surmounted by exploiting rare stable isotopes as labels that may be metabolically incorporated into cholesterol and lipids without altering their chemical compositions, and the Cameca NanoSIMS 50 instrument's ability to image rare stable isotope labels with high spatial resolution. This Account covers the use of secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) performed with a Cameca NanoSIMS 50 instrument for imaging cholesterol and sphingolipids in the membranes of mammalian cells. The NanoSIMS 50 detects monatomic and diatomic secondary ions ejected from the sample to map the elemental and isotopic composition at the surface of the sample with better than 50 nm lateral resolution and 5 nm depth resolution. Much effort has focused on using NanoSIMS imaging of rare isotope-labeled cholesterol and sphingolipids for testing the long-standing hypothesis that cholesterol and sphingolipids colocalize within distinct domains in the plasma membrane. By using a NanoSIMS 50 to image rare isotope-labeled cholesterol and sphingolipids in parallel with affinity-labeled proteins of interest, a hypothesis regarding the colocalization of specific membrane proteins with cholesterol and sphingolipids in distinct plasma membrane domains has been tested. NanoSIMS performed in a depth profiling mode has enabled imaging the intracellular distributions of cholesterol and sphingolipids. Important progress has also been made in developing a computational depth correction strategy for constructing more accurate three-dimensional (3D) NanoSIMS depth profiling images of intracellular component distribution without requiring additional measurements with complementary techniques or signal collection. This Account provides an overview of this exciting progress, focusing on the studies from our laboratory that shifted understanding of plasma membrane organization, and the development of enabling tools for visualizing intracellular lipids.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)752-762
Number of pages11
JournalAccounts of chemical research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 4 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry


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