We studied the laminar organization of 3T3 fibroblast cells growing on glass slides by use of total internal reflection illumination to excite fluorescence emission (TIRF) from labeled molecules and stained cellular compartments that are very close to the cell-substrate contact region. Mitochondria, distant from the contact regions and stained with the water-soluble cationic dye, dil-C3-(3), fluoresced only as the glass/cytoplasm critical angle was approached. A similar result was obtained when the nuclei were stained with Hoechst dye 33342. From this measured angle a cytoplasmic refractive index in the range 1.358-1.374 was computed. The plasma membrane of 3T3 cells was stained with dil-C18-(3), and the cytoplasmic compartment was stained with fluoresceinyl-dextran (FTC-dextran) or with carboxyfluorescein. We have demonstrated a high degree of correspondence between the low-reflectance zones in the reflection interference image of a live cell and the TIRF images of both the plasma membrane and cytoplasmic compartment. TIRF photometry of selected contact regions of cells provided data from which the absolute separation of cell and substrate was computed. From a population of 3T3 cells microinjected with fluorescein-labeled actin, motile and adherent interphase cells were selected for study. For adherent cells, which displayed fluorescent stress fibers, the TIRF image was composed of intense patches and less intense regions that corresponded, respectively, to the focal contact and close-contact zones of the reflection-interference image. The intense patches corresponded to the endpoints of the stress fibers. Cells of motile morphology, which formed some focal contacts and extensive close-contact zones, gave AF-actin TIRF images of relatively even intensity. Thin lamellar regions of the cytoplasm were found to contain concentrations of actin not significantly different from other close-contact regions of the cell. The major analytical problem of TIRF microscopy is separation of the effects of proximity to substrate, refractive index, and fluorescent probe concentration on the local brightness of the TIRF image. From our results, it appears possible to use TIRF microscopy to measure the proximity of different components of substrate contact regions of cells.

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